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Robert Dillon: Sporting Declaration

CLEAN PAIR OF HEELS: Kalyn Ponga leaves Cooper Cronk in his wake during Newcastle’s recent clash with the Roosters. Picture: AAPSPORTING Declaration is no basketball expert, but it’s hard not to be captivated by the Ben Simmons story.
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The Philadelphia 76ers rookie –and former Newcastle Hunters junior – is not just out there taking tentative steps on the ultimate stage, America’s NBA.He is already outplaying seasoned opponents and racking up statistical records at amind-boggling rate.

The players with whom he’s being compared represent a who’s who of hoops: Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Oscar Robertson. Hall of Famers, one and all.

It’s only natural to ponder how good Simmonsis now how much better he can potentially become.

The general consensus is that the 21-year-oldis at the start of one of the all-time great careers, and over the next 15 years or so he could well redefine the definition of “best ever”.

Without wanting to create undue expectations or pressure, I can’t help experiencingsimilar excitement about an athlete at a similar juncturein his sporting journey:Newcastle Knights fullback Kalyn Ponga.

There were many who raised an eyebrow a bit more than a year ago when the Knights forked outtop dollar for an 18-year-old who had appeared in only two NRL games.

But in years to come, that outlay may well be regarded as the best money the club ever spent.

Most fans had an idea what Ponga would bring to the Knights, based on the fleeting appearances he had made in North Queensland’s top side.

They would have been awarehe was fast and possessed electricfootwork, reminiscent of a young Benji Marshall.

What we perhaps weren’t expecting was that he would beso much more than just a dynamic ball runner.

Already, in his six games for Newcastle, Ponga has shown signs of being the complete package.

He has gift-wrappedthree tries for Lachlan Fitzgibbon simply by getting outside his man and delivering a deft short ball for the powerful back-rower.

The cut-out passes he fires fromthe edge of the ruck out to Newcastle’s left flankappear as if they have been fired out of a cannon.

He has been peppered with bombs, yet fumbled only once, and shows a nonchalanceunder the high ball that suggests kickers are wasting their time.

In defence, his tackles havesaved apparently certain tries several times.

He’s been tough enough to bounce back from a high shot in the opening minute against Manly to score a try shortly afterwards.

And he’s kicked 16 goals from 20 attempts, at an 80 per cent strike rate.

He has been so calm and collected that it seems hard to believe he has just turned 20 and has only 15 NRL games under his belt.

Already there is speculation that he is a bolter for the Queensland Origin team, a prospect Maroons skipper Cameron Smith did not dismiss as outlandish after Melbourne’s 40-14 win against Newcastle last weekend.

“I got an opportunity to play State of Origin after 14 [NRL] games, so if he’s playing well enough,andhe’s the best person to play well in the Queensland State of Origin team, I can’t see why you wouldn’t select him,”Smithsaid.“You just see him, when he’s got the ball, he’s got some freakish ability about him,andthat’s something that I don’t think has been coached. It’s just natural talent.”

Realistically, this season’s Origin might be too early for Ponga.

Billy Slater is a certainty as Queensland fullback. Valentine Holmes, Greg Inglis, Will Chambers andDane Gagai are likely to round out the back five, although Darius Boyd is a proven performer.

Michael Morgan, Cameron Munster, Ben Hunt and Daley Cherry-Evans are in line to fill the massive void left by the rep retirements of Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk.And that is without even discussing the merits of Ashley Taylor or Anthony Milford.

Nonetheless, it would be no surprise if the Maroons included Ponga in an extended squad as a mentoring experience, so he can trainwith the best players in the world and benefit from any advice they share.

As impressive as he has been, logic would suggest we have seen only a glimpse of Ponga’s potential.

Matthew Johns reckons it takes young playmakers 50 games to find their feet in the NRL. By the time they have played in 100, they are starting to control games.

Ponga might be well ahead of that, but Johns’s theory is a reminder that perhaps we ain’t seen nothing yet.

In particular, just consider that in Newcastle’s six games this year, they have won three tight contests and lost three by convincing margins.

In other words, the Knights are yet to dominate any opponent. What Pongahas created thus far has been largely through individual skill. Imagine how effective he might be if Newcastle’s forwards are on the front foot, punching holes in the opposition.

Alsoconsiderthat, at Brown’s direction, Ponga has thus far concentrated on attacking mainly on Newcastle’s left edge. Eventually he is likely to roam both sides of the field, creating twice as much chaos for rival defenders.

The bottom line is that, like Ben Simmons, Kalyn Ponga is an extraordinary talent. Fans of both should sit back and enjoy the ride.

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