How Knights brought the best out of Ponga
NOT even Kalyn Ponga expected the season he has had in 2018.
The 20-year-old is a strong contender for Wednesday night's Dally M Medal and it would be another award for a stunning year.
In his first season with the Newcastle Knights, his first full season in the NRL, his repeated outstanding performances demanded a call-up to the Maroons and he finished the year as the club's best player as well as the players' player.
What has caught him by surprise is what he has achieved off the field.
Ponga feels at home.
He arrived in Newcastle from Townsville on a four-year contract and the bonds he has formed with teammates are so strong he believes it played a big part in how he played this year.
"It's the first night I've gone to an awards night and felt I belonged. I've been to previous ones and you're sitting there just to be there," Ponga told The Daily Telegraph.
"When you feel so comfortable around a group of mates, you're not afraid to express yourself on and off the field … when you can be yourself around the boys and then carry that through onto the field.
"That's probably why I've been able to play the way I have and be able to portray myself as a footy player. In the past I've never really had that opportunity."
He credits coach Nathan Brown as another influence on his on-field efforts.
Previously, Ponga said he had only ever been "thrown into a position", but since joining Newcastle he has an understanding of what is expected. He also has a freedom to play his own game.
Ponga has spoken of applying his touch football skills to a rugby league setting and it produced an unpredictability at the line for which opposition teams struggled to find an answer.
His new coach unlocked that.
"He's (Brown) been very specific with me and my position," Ponga said.
"In previous years I've just been thrown into a position and told to play a certain way.
"(Brown) in the pre-season, from the get-go, let me play a way that I didn't even know I could play.
"He's probably brought out the best of me, out of anyone. He's just allowed me to express myself on the field.
"It explains why I think highly of him. I know he's been very good for the younger boys that have been here. For him to do that has been amazing for myself.
"I can't wait for the next few years."
If Newcastle fans had even the slightest hint of concern when talk of a future All Blacks defection began late this season, they need not worry.
Ponga has settled so quickly at Newcastle he's already moved out of his family's home.
It was something he didn't expect to do "for the next two years" but is now living he moved in with teammate Connor Watson a few months ago.
"I've gravitated to Connor and we've grown very close over the last nine, 10 months," Ponga said. "That's probably just an example of how close I am with the boys.
"My mum was like, 'yeah, that's sweet, that's OK, you can move out'. Then I didn't text her for like a week and then she text me and was like, 'I didn't raise you to be like this, why don't you miss me?'
"I was like, 'Mum! I honestly miss you, I've been busy moving in and what not'. Mum knows I love her and that I care about my family a lot."
Whether he takes home the Dally M Medal or not, Ponga has a massive breakout season to build off in 2019.
In his laid-back style though, he's not thinking about it.
After enjoying an end-of-season trip to Cairns with his teammates, Ponga plans to take some time to relax before putting his mind to what he could achieve next year.
"I've had a bit of a year that I didn't expect this year," he said.
"I'll enjoy my off-season and then when it comes time to nut out a few goals for next year I'll sit down with my old man and do that, but I'm not looking to do that right now."