He’s one of the brightest young talents in rugby league, but Kalyn Ponga’s career as professional athlete could have taken a very different path had the opportunity for a career in rugby union presented itself earlier.
The 21-year-old Newcastle Knights fullback was a star in both codes as a teenager at Anglican Church Grammar School in Brisbane, which led professional clubs from three different leagues to chase his signature upon his departure from secondary school.
In the end, it was the NRL’s North Queensland Cowboys who won the race ahead of league rivals the Brisbane Broncos, Sydney Roosters and Melbourne Storm, Super Rugby’s Queensland Reds and the Brisbane Lions of the AFL.
A transfer to the Knights in 2018 has seen Ponga’s development evolve to the point where he is now a leading figure within both the Queensland State of Origin and Maori All-Stars squads, meaning a debut Kangaroos call-up must not be too far away.
His rapid rise in league, though, illustrates an opportunity lost for union, particularly Rugby Australia and New Zealand Rugby, both of which are nations of which he is eligible to represent in the XV-man code.
Ponga has previously spoken of his desire to represent the All Blacks, as the Western Australia-born playmaker has a Kiwi father, Andre, of Maori descent and spent five years in Palmerston North as a child.
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika also approached the Dally M Medal contender about the possibility of moving back to union once his deal with Newcastle expires at the end of 2021.
While the Bledisloe Cup rivals would dearly love to have the once-in-a-generation talent in their ranks, Ponga revealed that league was his only genuine career option in an interview on Fox Sports’ Sunday Night with Matty Johns show over the weekend.
“I was given the opportunity to go to league and just took it straight away,” he said.
“I just saw more opportunity in rugby league.”
Asked if he was presented the same avenue to pursue a career in rugby union at the same time that he was offered a career in league, Ponga replied: “For me there wasn’t much of one, no.”
With another two-and-a-half seasons still to play at McDonald Jones Stadium with the Knights, it will be quite some time before either the All Blacks or Wallabies are able to make a play for the prodigiously skilled youngster.
In saying that, once his contract expires at the end of the 2021 NRL season, there will be no shortage of avenues to take his talents to union, should both New Zealand Rugby and Rugby Australia remain keen on one of the hottest properties in the 13-man code.
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