Seal Media Group, Australia
The then teen prodigy is a shock selection to replace Antonio Winterstein in a semi-final Queensland derby between North Queensland and big brother Brisbane.Ponga, just a wiry 18-year old, looked right at home on the big stage as he zigzagged his way through the Broncos defence.He almost etched his name further into history with a long-range try that was denied as an obstruction.“It all happened pretty quickly. I got told on Captain’s Run that I was going to debut,” Ponga said. Watch every 2021 NRL Telstra Finals Series match before Grand Final. Live & Ad-Break Free on Kayo. New to Kayo? Try 14-days free >NED-4494-NRL-Knights-Poster-banner“Mentally, it was probably the best thing for me because I didn’t have time to think about it.“I was thrown into the deep end. I don’t know how I did it to be honest, I weighed like 82 kilograms … physically I wasn’t there. “I think mentally, I always thought I was ready to debut. But I think the excitement and the adrenaline of the occasion got me there and then through the game. “I was lucky enough to play the week after as well. But yeah, it was pretty special. It was an awesome couple of weeks for me.”It would take the Newcastle fullback Ponga another four seasons and 65 games before he would get the chance to taste football in September once again. “Debuting means a lot but I was a kid, I probably didn’t understand just how much work you need to put into a season to get to the point of playing finals,” Ponga told News Corp.“It’s different now. It means so much more to me.“Now being a leader at the Knights and caring so much about the result and everything the club represents, playing in a final means so much more to me. I guess it weighs on me more, I care about it more.”That weight of expectation was laid bare in Newcastle’s 46-20 week one loss to South Sydney last year, which was only Ponga’s third ever finals match. Ponga slumped into the ground at full-time in tears as the reality of crashing out of the finals race sunk in.The fullback revealed a troublesome shoulder injury, which he subsequently required surgery, had not only disrupted his preparation but taken a mental toll. This time around, against the Parramatta Eels on Sunday, Ponga is primed, mentally and physically, to once again prove he and the Knights belong in September. “It’s crazy what an injury can do to you mentally,” Ponga said.“I didn’t realise until I had the surgery, looking back it probably did take some confidence out of me.“This year I’m fit, I’ve had a couple of injuries but have got over the shoulder and groin.“I think the (team) belief and confidence is higher than what it was last year and I think it‘s because of the hard work we’ve put in over the last eight weeks to get here.“It‘s where you want to be. You don’t want to be anywhere else but playing at this time.”Every game Ponga conquers in September is a chance to run out one last time alongside best mate Connor Watson, who is headed for the Sydney Roosters next season.The two live together in Newcastle and have forged an unbreakable bond over the past four years that extends beyond the playing field. In July, the enterprising duo started Lords Collective, a cold brew coffee drink. Ponga’s first foray into business was a brewing company called Goo-C, which was launched in late 2020. One of Australia’s most marketable athletes, Ponga uses his extensive reach on social media platforms Instagram and TikTok, to promote and sell the products.“There is a coffee shop down the road from us back in Newcastle. We go there every morning and we became pretty close to the owners. They’re really cool people, a bit quirky and interesting people and that suits us as well,” Ponga said. “Connor and I always had the idea that we want to start some sort of coffee or make our own coffee cups because we drink coffee every morning, we love it. “We took the idea to them, and they were thinking about a cold brew too so we went into business with them. We’ve had two drops, both have pretty much sold out. “I do enjoy the build-up, in terms of choosing a coffee, the design that keeps me busy away from footy. “The numbers and business is probably not my strong point, Connor is good at that. I like creativity and marketing.”When Ponga isn’t on the field or getting stuck into one of his many creative side projects, the 23-year old is constantly fielding questions about his rugby league future, now more than ever with Watson heading to Bondi in the summer.“I know that I am very committed to Newcastle and winning a comp here,” Ponga said. “I get asked about the All Blacks a lot, it’s not something on my radar or want to achieve right now.“I’m going to give my all to Newcastle and winning a title.” Newcastle finished the regular season in seventh place and the record books show not a single team has been able to claim the NRL title from outside the top four. It seems more likely Ponga will be left waiting for at least another 12 months before he gets his hands on the Provan-Summons trophy. Despite history being stacked against the Knights, the road to premiership glory has been Ponga’s single focus leading into week one of the finals series.Newcastle’s last title victory came against Sunday’s opponents, the Eels in 2001. Rugby League Immortal and Newcastle’s favourite son, halfback Andrew Johns, delivered a performance that earnt him the Clive Churchill Medal. On Wednesday, Knights No. 7 Mitchell Pearce, who helped the Sydney Roosters to a title in 2013, told The Daily Telegraph he is ready to play the game of his life against the Eels.Ponga will take the paddock at Rockhampton with the same zeal and resolve.“If he’s ready to do that Junior (Pearce), then I’ll follow in his lead 100 per cent,” Ponga said.