Adam O’Brien has confirmed Kalyn Ponga will play at five-eighth for the Newcastle Knights this year having made the potentially permanent switch from fullback into the halves for the second time in his career to date.
“He’s been training at six all summer and he has been doing a really good job at it,” O’Brien told SEN.
When did Kalyn Ponga make the switch to five-eighth?
Following an injury plagued year which was ended when persistent concussion issues saw the 24-year-old ruled out for the remaining six weeks of the season, as well as a possible World Cup berth, a conversation was had around altering his position.
MORE: A timeline of Ponga’s injury-interrupted 2022 campaign as Knights struggle in his absence
Ponga suffered five concussions in total throughout last season with the final one incurred during a tackle from Matt Lodge in round 19 which eventually led to him staying off the field for the remainder of the year.
“When Kalyn was ruled out for the end of the (2022) season with his HIA issues, the decision was made then,” O’Brien revealed.
“If we were ever going to move Kalyn to six, now was the time.”
It’s not the first instance where Ponga has made a move into the halves, having done so unsuccessfully under previous Newcastle coach Nathan Brown.
Having come within a whisker of claiming the Dally M Medal in 2018, Brown attempted to switch Ponga into the No.6 jersey. But the experiment lasted just three games before he reverted to fullback following some poor performances and results for the Knights.
However, O’Brien is confident this time around things will run smoothly after the club implemented a change of approach for their star man and captain to help him in the transition.
“Essentially, we’ve had five months. He had a very brief break in October and then started training before everyone else. We changed his training program and he’s obviously put some size on in the gym,” the coach stated.
MORE: Culture is a rolling stone – Newcastle’s bid to reverse their fortunes begins in pre-season
Although Ponga’s switch into the halves has left Newcastle threadbare at the back with some supposedly makeshift options being tried out during the pre-season.
“We’ve had a number of guys train at fullback over the summer such as young Bailey Hodgson who is finally injury free,” O’Brien said.
“He’s trained there most of the summer alongside guys like Dane Gagai. Tyson Gamble has also spent some time back there.”
Despite giving an opportunity to former Knights’ fullback Gagai and new signing Gamble to try and claim the No.1 jersey – O’Brien hinted there could still be something in the works to allow for Ponga’s positional change.
“Strengthening that fullback spot remains a priority for us,” he said.
Why is Kalyn Ponga being moved from fullback?
Ponga’s switch of position has been on the cards for a number of years with both Brown and O’Brien eager to for him to get his hands on the ball more while reducing his defensive workload at fullback.
“If you break KP’s game down there’s probably five or six ways where him getting the ball suits his skill set the best and obviously one of them is broken field,” Brown told Triple M at the time while explaining the reasoning behind the alteration.
MORE: Nathan Brown attempts to justify Kalyn Ponga’s positional switch at Newcastle
“One of the ways you get the ball in broken field is kick-returning, so not playing there obviously takes that away from him.
“But in the other areas where he needs to get the ball sometimes playing five-eighth he has more energy because he covers a lot less kilometres.”
Yet away from minimising the defensive responsibilities of his game, the concussion issues he was suffering from while playing at the back may also have played a factor in getting him out of the firing line.
Midway through last season, Ponga was involved in a sickening collision with Viliame Kikau when he raced across the field to make a covering tackle only to come off second best against the rampaging forward.
He was also collected high on a number of occasions during his kick-returns that will no longer form a part of his game after a switch into the halves.
Kalyn Ponga won’t return after failing his HIA. This is his 3rd concussion in the past 6 weeks, and the 5th time he has required a HIA this season. Each concussion is individual/unique in terms of recovery, but likely extra caution will be taken here by the Knights
— NRL PHYSIO (@nrlphysio) July 22, 2022
Ponga’s availability has become a contentious point of late, having failed to appear in 20 matches or more in each of his past three seasons in the Hunter.
During another injury hit campaign, his four tries and six assists were the lowest numbers he has recorded since joining the Knights from North Queensland in 2018.
The rest of his attacking stats this year, from linebreaks to offloads, were also far below what has come to be expected of him.
The arrival of Jackson Hastings has been viewed as a remedy for Ponga’s stagnation with the former Wests Tigers playmaker comfortable with organising an attack.
With this burden released off Ponga, it could allow the Queenslander to flourish with his short-side raids on the left-edge proving particularly effective over the years.
“(Hastings) will make the transition for Kalyn to six so much easier,” O’Brien said.
“He knows the game well and he’s a general so he will steer the team around. He’s very vocal and he’s very clear about what he wants those around him to do.
“That allows Kalyn to be himself and doesn’t bog him down with a lot of responsibility of him being a director.
“I want Jackson to steer the team around and get Kalyn the ball in the space that we need to get him in. They’re working really well together at the moment.”