FORMER Maroons skipper Darren Lockyer has hailed Kalyn Ponga a 10-year Origin player and believes the fullback whizkid has the potential to captain Queensland.
Ponga was a walk up start for the Maroons team named for Origin II, with injury the only factor to force changes in Kevin Walters’ squad as they look to wrap up the series in Perth after their brilliant 18-14 in the first game.
With Jai Arrow (ankle) and Joe Ofahengaue (knee) both unavailable, Dylan Napa has been promoted to start in the front row, with Jarrod Wallace and Tim Glasby the new faces on the bench.
Emerging Maroons Christian Welch, Edrick Lee and Corey Norman will join the Queensland camp as part of extended squad.
At a time when reports have surfaced of Wallabies coach Michael Cheika expressing interest in Ponga, Lockyer urged him to stay in rugby league, insisting the Maroons young gun can play in the code’s toughest arena until 2029.
Making his fullback starting debut in Origin I, Ponga was superb as Billy Slater’s successor, having a hand in two tries to spearhead Queensland’s 18-14 defeat of the Blues.
At 21, Ponga already looks comfortable in the State of Origin arena after just two games and Lockyer, who played 36 matches for the Maroons, has no doubt the Knights ace can one day join Queensland’s elite 30-game FOGS Statesmen Club.
“The quality of Kalyn’s performances at club level and for Queensland tells me he can be a 10-year Origin player,” said Lockyer, who retired as Maroons skipper in 2011.
“Ponga shows incredible composure for a player still in his embryonic years in the NRL.
“While his five-eighth experiment at Newcastle didn’t work, his return to fullback is a huge relief for the Maroons.
“At this stage of his career, Ponga is best suited roaming in the backfield and his performance in Origin I was an insight into his remarkable maturity for a young man.
“The best players relish the biggest stages, and Kalyn looks so comfortable in the Origin arena.
“I know Kalyn played rugby as a schoolboy but the NRL is the best environment for him and I see him developing into a leader in the Queensland team.”
Newly-crowned skipper Daly Cherry-Evans, who made his captaincy debut in the 2019 series opener, agreed with Lockyer, saying Ponga could one day succeed him as Queensland leader.
“Young blokes can naturally build and become leaders, but Kalyn is certainly trending in the right direction to be a future captain,” he said.
“He gets a lot of credit and media attention and I don’t want to put anymore pressure on him. But the demeanour he has in the side, he has already gained the respect from his teammates.
“Through his leadership qualities, he demands certain things from the side.
“It’s all there for him. I can’t wait to be along for the ride with Kalyn Ponga.
“Hopefully I will play a lot of footy with him in the Queensland team for the next couple of years.”
Slater spent time in the lead-up to Origin I working closely with Ponga, and the new Maroons No.1 says he relished being mentored by one of rugby league’s finest fullbacks.
“Billy said a few things to me and he just said it with confidence. He had confidence in me and that made me feel pretty good,” Ponga said.
“I’ve watched his game a fair bit and I’ve taken a few things out of it in attack and defence.
“In the last Origin camp (in 2018), I had a fair bit to do with him and I spent a fair bit of time with him (in Origin I camp) and tried to absorb everything that I could.
“It was definitely faster than club footy. The first 10 minutes was crazy. That is Origin footy.”
Ponga is now primed for Game Two in Origin’s inaugural visit to Perth on June 23.
The Maroons custodian was born in the north West Australian town of Port Hedland, making Origin II a home game of sorts for Ponga.
He is set to oppose NSW fullback James Tedesco again, but says he is not motivated by the efforts of his Blues rival.
“I am out there to do my job, not his,” he said.
“I am not out there to beat him. I am out there to do my job for the boys. I can obviously be a lot better for Game Two and I’ll work on that.”
MAROONS TEAM FOR ORIGIN II:
Kalyn Ponga, Corey Oates, Michael Morgan, Will Chambers, Dane Gagai, Cameron Munster, Daly Cherry-Evans (c), Dylan Napa, Ben Hunt, Josh Papalii, Felise Kaufusi, Matt Gillett, Josh McGuire. Interchange: Moses Mbye, Jarrod Wallace, Tim Glasby, David Fifita. Reserves: Christian Welch, Edrick Lee, Corey Norman.