Big problem preventing Ponga’s Queensland Origin push
QUEENSLAND coach Kevin Walters has a conundrum, and it will almost certainly prevent gifted Knights fullback Kalyn Ponga from making his Origin debut in 2018.
As attention has been centred around how Walters can possibly settle on a halves combination that has to follow in the footsteps of Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk, any possible solution impacts greatly on the make-up of the Maroons bench.
Michael Morgan, Ben Hunt and Daly Cherry-Evans all made their Origin debuts in the role of Mr Fix-It on the Queensland bench while Cameron Munster boasts versatility that would make him a certain inclusion of not selected in the run-on side.
Two of those four will be selected as Queensland's starting halves for Game One in Melbourne on June 6 leaving the other two as frontrunners for the No.14 jersey, effectively putting Ponga's ambitions on hold.
It was only during the pre-season that Ponga declared his representative allegiance to Queensland over New Zealand yet despite his blistering start to life as a Knight and ability to play anywhere in the backline, former Maroons half Ben Ikin can't see him forcing his way into the 17 this year.
"He deserves to be in the conversation," Ikin conceded on this week's Market Watch podcast.
"There's this wealth of talent aligned to Queensland at the moment.
"To think that we lost Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk in one year and the guys that are in line to replace them have already represented their country.
"I talk of Michael Morgan, Ben Hunt… Cameron Munster got man of the match at five-eighth on debut in a decider!
"Let's be honest, Ben Hunt has already played for Australia, he's played for Queensland, he spent the second half of the season playing hooker for the Broncos and did a great job.
"I just don't think Kalyn Ponga is going to get the nod over those two guys (Hunt or Morgan)."
Recruited from North Queensland on a multimillion-dollar deal while still a teenager with only a couple of NRL games to his name, Ponga's influence at the Knights has been instantaneous.
He created space where there was none between two internationals in Matt Gillett and Kodi Nikorima to put Lachlan Fitzgibbon across last weekend and his pure footballing instincts make him just as effective as the last line of Newcastle defence.
His talent is breathtaking to anyone with even a fleeting interest in rugby league but what excites Ikin most is the prospect of what's to come.
"You look at him and almost forget his age. He's more ready for Origin now than I was at the back-end of my career such is his talent," joked Ikin, who first played for Queensland at 18 years of age.
"The thing that excites me most about Kalyn Ponga is not what I'm seeing but the commentary from Danny Buderus.
"He's seen a lot of him at training and every time Ponga rolls out his next highlight, I get this sense from Buderus that we've seen that, but you haven't seen this, this and this. 'Wait until he rolls out these things.'
"'Bedsy' is a little bit like Andrew Johns. They're rugby league savants, and when I listen to Bedsy I get the sense that he is more excited about what Kalyn Ponga hasn't showed us than what he has."
MAROONS TOP UTILITY OPTIONS
Michael Morgan (Cowboys)
Got his first start for Queensland in the centres in Game Three last year and over the second half of the NRL season established himself as one of the game's premier halves. The Kangaroos' first-choice five-eighth throughout the World Cup but struggling to assert himself after missing the start of the season due to injury. Favoured to partner Cameron Munster in the halves but Ben Hunt's form and his own versatility could count against him earning a deserved starting spot.
Cameron Munster (Storm)
Been the focal point of the Storm attack over the first month and given his Origin debut in Game Three last year almost certain to wear the famous Queensland No.6 jersey. Equally adept at five-eighth or fullback and can also play in the centres.
Ben Hunt (Dragons)
Made his Origin debut in the No.14 jersey in Game Three last year and has begun his tenure as the Dragons' No.7 in stunning style. History of playing hooker and halfback makes him an appealing alternative if he can't force his way into the starting side.
Kalyn Ponga (Knights)
Perhaps the most naturally gifted athlete the game has ever seen, Ponga can play anywhere in the backline and has the footwork and speed that would make him a nightmare to defend as the Blues defence tired. Only turned 20 a couple of weeks ago and won't have to wait too long before he earns his first Maroons jersey.
Moses Mbye (Bulldogs)
Second only to Ponga for tackle busts with 27 in five weeks, Mbye leads the NRL in line breaks and has been the shining light in a Bulldogs side struggling to find their groove. A regular in Emerging Origin camps in recent years, his off-season shift from the halves to fullback has elevated Mbye's utility value to new heights.
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