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Ponga sparks Knights, puts retirement fears behind him

With his Knights looking to make it five straight against the Dolphins on Saturday and clinch a spot in the top eight, Kalyn Ponga said he is “glad” he chose to rule himself out of this year’s Origin series.

After concussion concerns restricted the 25-year-old fullback to just six NRL games before the Maroons squad was named for Game One, Billy Slater encouraged Ponga to sit out of the 2023 series and focus on his own form at the Knights.

Since then, Newcastle’s spine has clicked into gear with Ponga’s return to fullback in Round 13 inspiring the Novocastrians to pull off wins over the Bulldogs, Wests Tigers, Storm and Raiders, bringing them to within one point of the eight heading into Round 23.

“They (Queensland) got the job done so I’m glad that I did that. It sort of just gave me that clarity,” Ponga told the media on Wednesday.

“Billy (Slater) was instrumental in that as well, he actually said to me ‘it’s probably just better for you to sit and out and focus on yourself’. Not even for the Knights, just for myself.

“Obviously with the head knocks and the way I started the season, it was a bit of a rough trot me for those first two or three months.

“I sort of stepped back, took that away and focused on the Knights, my day to day and just enjoying my footy and I’m glad I did it.” Having travelled to Vancouver for advanced neurophysiological testing after suffering his fourth head knock in 10 months earlier in the season, Ponga’s recent form is even more remarkable considering there was a time he questioned his future in the game.

“When I first came back to be honest I was a bit nervous. I wasn’t hesitant but I was nervous just because at one point there I was looking at retirement at 25,” he said.

“To be through that and be past that and just be playing footy and enjoying what I do. I guess that’s footy, the rollercoaster that we play.

“I think I’m playing well but I still want to be better. I’m really just doing what the team wants of me.”

After Adam O’Brien’s side struggled with consistency early in the season, the new-look spine has fired a warning shot to the rest of the competition in recent weeks with 2023 recruits Jackson Hastings and Tyson Gamble forming a lethal halves partnership alongside new hooker Phoenix Crossland.

“I don’t think I’ve ever played with a spine for so long and you look at the boys that are in the spine and they’re playing good footy as well,” Ponga said.

“Just that continuity of playing together and learning together, like it’s Jacko’s and Tyson’s first season here and they’re playing great footy.

“So if we can keep everyone on the park, keep improving and getting better than hopefully we can make the eight.”