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Kalyn Ponga, Andrew Johns, Newcastle Knights, coaching, team 2022, Jake Clifford


Newcastle wunderkind Kalyn Ponga hasn’t reached anywhere near his potential, but rugby league legend Andrew Johns believes he can help him get there.

Johns has returned to the steel city which he was handed the keys to 24 years ago when he brought the premiership trophy to the Hunter, and won another title in 2001.

The Knights haven’t tasted that success in two decades, but the return of the Eighth Immortal and the club’s best ever player, now in a coaching role, has renewed hope of breaking the drought.

The player who holds the key to the team’s success, though, isn’t Johns anymore. It’s Ponga.

“He’s got so much improvement in him. I think the sky’s the limit for Kalyn,” Johns told Wide World of Sports after officially clocking on with the Knights this week.

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“We’re just scratching the surface (with Ponga).

“When you’ve got a player like Kalyn, one of those truly elite players, you have to also educate the guys around them to understand what they’re looking to do, which will then help Kalyn’s game.”

And that’s exactly what Johns plans to do at the club in his new role.

He’s been brought in to help head coach Adam O’Brien get the best out of his spine players, including Ponga, playmaker Jake Clifford, and hooker Jayden Brailey.

Ponga is undoubtedly one of the NRL’s elite young stars, but the Knights as a whole struggled to find cohesion in attack in 2021.

The 23-year-old fullback is about to enter his fifth season with the Knights and it’s one that holds significant ramifications for him contractually.

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Andrew Johns returning to Knights

His deal runs to the end of 2024 but there’s said to be clauses which would allow Ponga to leave the Hunter if he helps the team win a grand final next year or the year after.

With the Dolphins entering the NRL in 2023, and a Rugby World Cup happening that same year, there’s going to be plenty of outside interest in luring Ponga away from Newcastle.

In the shorter term, there’s speculation the Knights want to move Ponga from fullback to five-eighth in an effort to fully capitalise on his talent and kickstart a spluttering attack.

Johns isn’t too fussed where Ponga lines up.

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“Fullback and five-eighth are very similar in the way they play these days,” he said.

“The only thing defensively, you’re going to do a lot more defence in the front line at five-eighth. But Kalyn is one of those players you could play anywhere on the field and he will play well.

“He’s such a special player. I can’t wait to be working with him and looking at his strengths… I don’t really see many weaknesses. But working on his game, that’s really exciting.”

2021 Team Reviews: The Knights attacking trio

The Knights have finished inside the NRL’s top eight the last two years but have been bundled out of finals in uninspiring fashion both times.

This year they were the second worst attacking team in the competition, ahead of only the dismal Bulldogs.

“I think they put a lot of energy into their defence, which then naturally your attack is going to suffer,” Johns said.

He’s ready to work closely with the club’s crop of playmakers to hopefully inject some spark on the other side of the ball.

“Working on strategies, when to pass, when to kick. How to bring out the best in the players around them. Pretty much just mentoring them on halves play,” he said.

“I’ve always had a rap on Jake (Clifford). I watched him come through the juniors and in the lower grades there at the Cowboys. I always thought he’s a top-line half. I was over the moon when he went to Newcastle.

“I think everyone’s excited, the town, about the way they’ve improved the last few years. There’s a real buzz in town so hopefully the boys can deliver.”

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