On November 5, news broke that NRL superstar Kalyn Ponga would be free to pursue his dream of representing the All Blacks. It was revealed that there was a clause in his contract with the Newcastle Knights that would allow him to become a free agent this time next year to pursue a role at the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Since that announcement, with the presidential election and positive news about a potential COVID-19 vaccine dominating the news, one can be forgiven for missing this relatively trivial piece of information. But make no mistake – the prospect of Ponga switching codes to play for the All Blacks should have rugby union fans salivating.
Ponga, aged 22, broke onto the scene as an internet sensation in 2014 when a highlights reel of him playing rugby union for his school, Anglican Church Grammar School, appeared on YouTube and gained 1.8 million views. The footage showed him carving through defences with aplomb, and heads were turned at AFL, NRL and Super Rugby clubs. He looked certain to sidestep his way to stardom.
So far he has delivered.
With contracts on the table from all three sports, he opted to pursue a career in the NRL and signed for the North Queensland Cowboys in December 2013, before moving to the Newcastle Knights in 2018. He made his NRL debut at 18 and has since scored 30 tries in 68 appearances.
He has won the Knights’ Player of the Season award twice, in 2018 and 2020, and has become one of the most feared runners in the NRL. Playing in a Knights side that finished seventh, this season he broke the fourth most tackles (112) in the NRL, utilising a combination of deceptive strength, ballerina-like balance, an ankle-breaking sidestep and lightning pace.
His debut for Queensland in Game Two of the 2018 State of Origin series was dubbed by former Australian test halfback Andrew Johns as ‘the best debut in Origin history’.
Ponga is a bona fide superstar in the NRL and a fan favourite; he was the third most selected player in the 2020 NRL fantasy league. A transition back to union would undoubtedly upset Knights fans, considering he has not achieved his publicly stated goal of winning an NRL title with them, not to mention his previous denial of an All Blacks clause in his contract.
However, his desire to play for New Zealand has been public knowledge for some time. In an interview with TVNZ in 2018 he said “that [playing for the All Blacks] would be a huge goal” and that it is “the pinnacle”.
Despite having played for the Australia Nines side (rugby league’s equivalent to Sevens), Ponga would be eligible for selection by New Zealand as his father’s side of the family are Maori, and he has previously lived in New Zealand for extended periods of time.
Ponga’s dream is an attainable one, as demonstrated by the success of cross-code athletes Sonny Bill Williams and Brad Thorn. Both amassed impressive trophy hauls across both codes and won the World Cup with the All Blacks in 2011, with Williams repeating the feat in 2015.
Thorn’s path closely mirrors Ponga’s aspirations, as he too qualified for dual nationality having been raised in Australia by Kiwi parents. Across a 22-year playing career, Thorn earned 8 caps for Australia’s rugby league side and 59 for the All Blacks.
Both individuals are manifestations of Ponga’s dreams. However, repeating their successes is far from guaranteed.
Thorn told House of Rugby Ireland in 2018 that he was “embarrassed” by his sluggish start in union and that the transition was “brutal”, as at the age of 25 he had to recondition his game by relearning body position, tackling techniques, and the set piece.
However there are code switches that haven’t been successful. Benji Marshall was a walking highlights reel and NRL legend, but his attempt to transition from league to union should serve as a warning for Ponga. He wanted to play for the All Blacks, but after receiving damning criticism for a forgettable 2014 season with the Blues he sheepishly returned to the NRL.
Like Ponga, Marshall was at his most potent with the ball in hand running at defences, making them fall apart like digestives dunked in tea. But unlike Marshall, who made the switch at 28 and had not played any union for well over a decade, Ponga would be returning to a code that he grew up playing.
Ponga’s skill set is suited to playing at full-back in union. He is exceptional under the high ball, as proven by AFL side Brisbane Lions’ serious interest in him in 2016, and is adept at returning punts through his kicking or running game having played full-back at school and for the Knights.
He is also a superb passer of the ball, able to cause chaos as a distributor, and assisted 14 tries in 19 appearances last season.
If he were to successfully transition back to union, these skills would make him an ideal fit for Ian Foster’s All Blacks side, which currently operates with two playmakers at fly-half and full-back.
Ousting one of the four in contention will be a challenge though. The first-choice pair are the interchangeable Richie Mo’unga and double world player of the year Beauden Barrett. The two are unplayable at their best, as demonstrated in the recent Bledisloe Cup victories.
Even if the duo fell out of favour, Damien McKenzie and Jordie Barrett are already eagerly waiting in the wings and are both yet to come into their prime.
Ponga is unlikely to let that faze him though, and the All Blacks have a recent history of picking relatively unknown bolters in the run-up to World Cups, as George Bridge and Sevu Reece are testament to.
Whatever the next step in Ponga’s career, it will be a fascinating one. He has more than enough potential to fulfil his dream and help the All Blacks win their fourth Rugby World Cup.