AUSTRALIAN coach Mal Meninga has warned Newcastle they must “get it right” with the development of their rookie marquee signing Kalyn Ponga.
Ponga created a sensation in the post-season when he agreed to quit North Queensland and join the Knights on a four-year deal from 2018 worth around $3 million – the richest deal for an 18-year-old in the game’s history.
It was a bombshell announcement on many fronts, the amount of money being paid chief among them.
For all of Ponga’s undoubted potential, and that he has been on the radar of talent-spotters for some time, the fact remains that he has a grand total of two first grade games to his name – both of those on the wing.
Newcastle, the Cowboys and Melbourne were the three main competitors in the race for Ponga’s signature.
Most saw it as a surprise that the teenager would steer away from two championship clubs – that between them have played in the past two grand finals – to join the Knights, who were convincing wooden-spooners this year.
While Meninga hailed Newcastle for their coup, he offered a word of caution about ensuring both the club and the player benefit from the surprise move.
“First and foremost, as a rugby league person, I am delighted that Kalyn is staying in the NRL,” Meninga said.
“We all know that the (AFL’s) Brisbane Lions and (rugby union’s) Queensland Reds were chasing pretty heavily for him, and it would have been the worst-case scenario to see Kalyn go to another code.
“I guess a lot of people were surprised that he ended up signing with Newcastle. I think it is a brave move, because they are obviously a club that has a lot of rebuilding to do after the mess of the past few seasons.
“As a club, the Knights had to do something. And in Kalyn, they can obviously see a young guy that they can build a club around for the future.”
But Meninga said there would be pressure on all parties now to ensure the headline-grabbing deal succeeds.
“Kalyn has another year to go with the Cowboys, and I think he will really benefit from that,” Meninga said.
“Having another 12 months where he is just a part of a successful machine under Paul Green, playing a minor role behind the likes of Thurston, Morgan and Coote, will help his development a lot before he is the one in the spotlight at Newcastle.
“All the publicity, all the hype, and all the talk about the size of his contract means that he will be under pressure to deliver straight away in Newcastle, and that is a lot of pressure for a teenaged kid to handle.
“And that is why Newcastle are under pressure here as well. Not just from the basis of Kalyn playing well and helping the club improve, but how they handle his development as a player.
“It is going to be a juggling act for the Knights, but they have to get it right. They need to think of Kalyn’s long-term development and try to protect him as much as they can from the pressure and expectations that are going to be on him.
“I think his transition to a first-grade player would have been much easier at a club like the Cowboys or Melbourne.
“There he would be coming through successful systems, learning his craft under some of the greatest players in the game, and been brought along by coaches like Greeny and Craig Bellamy who have a good track record in developing players.
“But he has chosen to test himself at the Knights, and we are all genuinely hoping it works out well for everyone.”