Kalyn Ponga is rugby league’s most exciting young talent.
Kalyn Ponga is rugby league’s most exciting young talent.

Johns: Witness the birth of a superstar

KAYLN Ponga is the most dangerous attacking player in rugby league.

Brad Fittler must be praying that Kevvie Walters doesn't select him in the Queensland 17.

As far as players experiencing their first year at first-grade level, Kalyn is close to the best that I have seen.

Ponga's impact has been has been similar to that of Sonny Bill Williams and Fittler when they exploded into the top grade.

Both Freddy and Sonny arrived with plenty of hype and expectation but managed to exceed it all.

Ponga is showing the class of Brad Fittler. (Mark Evans)
Ponga is showing the class of Brad Fittler. (Mark Evans)

My first view of Fittler was watching him play for the Australian schoolboys against Great Britain Schools as the curtain-raiser to the Balmain Tigers v Newcastle Knights in the Hunter in 1989.

I'd heard plenty about Freddy and his magical left-foot sidestep and there was an electricity in the sellout crowd about the "next big thing".

With Fittler's first touch, you knew all the hype and fanfare was deserved. He beat three defenders with his trademark left foot to set up the opening try.

The Australian schoolboys annihilated the Brits, with Fittler untouchable.

The next Sunday I turned on the radio and immediately heard Peter Peters and Greg Hartley raving about the young teenage sensation Fittler, who Penrith coach Ron Willey had put on late in the Panthers' victory over Wests Magpies.

Fittler had two touches and produced two spectacular tries - and the rest is history.

It was early in the 2003 season when I first heard the name Sonny Bill Williams.

It was Knights coach Nathan Brown, then at the Dragons, who told me about the Kiwi prodigy.

"Browny" said he was a guaranteed superstar and that the Melbourne Storm had made him a big-money offer to leave the Dogs, even though he was still maybe a couple of seasons off playing in the top grade.

Few players have had the devastating impact of SBW. (Ashley Feder/Getty Images)
Few players have had the devastating impact of SBW. (Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

It was round one the next season when Steve Folkes decided to throw the 19-year-old into his first NRL game against Parramatta. Like Fittler, it only took one touch to know he was more than just a little special.

SBW seemingly broke the defence with every touch - and the rest is history.

Ponga has been a gift from the football gods for the Newcastle Knights, but the club has been good for him as well.

In Ponga's limited opportunities at the Cowboys, he could never quite impose himself as he would've liked.

At North Queensland, they were playing a style suited to the Thurstons and Morgans, with lots of block formations that don't suit players with acute footwork.

Ponga looks to have the lot. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)
Ponga looks to have the lot. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

Ponga is a triple threat. He can beat you on the outside with speed, he can beat you on the inside with a sidestep, or he can beat you with vision and sleight of hand.

At the Cowboys, he was sweeping behind block plays that sent him on a running angle which never allowed him to do what he does best - and that is putting a defender in his radar and feeling that defender's movement and reacting with a step, a skip or a pass.

At the Knights, coach Brown has built the attack around Ponga's strengths. They use very few "block" plays and instead look to push the ball into Ponga's hands as quickly as possible and allow him to breathe with the ball in hand.

NRL rivals already fear what Ponga can do to them. (Mark Nolan/Getty Images)
NRL rivals already fear what Ponga can do to them. (Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Go back and watch the Knights' round one victory over Manly and you'll see how much the team has evolved in their ability to play with Ponga.

In that first Manly match, the Knights' backrowers cramped Ponga and didn't allow him time and space to "feel" the defence. By round three, you could see the adjustment.

Lachlan Fitzgibbon, in particular, is brilliant at allowing Ponga time to breathe and terrorise the defender opposite him. Ponga/Fitzgibbon has more than just a bit of Cliff Lyons/Steve Menzies about their combination.

 

An indicator of Ponga's character and temperament is how he has elevated himself in Mitchell Pearce's absence, he looks motivated by the fact this is now his team, not pressured.

Will Kevin Walters select him for Queensland? I hope not.

I hope not for Newcastle's sake and I hope not for Brad Fittler's sake.