Ponga to make his mark by his actions on the field

He may not realise it, he may not even feel any extra pressure, but Newcastle Knights star Kalyn Ponga represents all that is positive about rugby league, at a time when way too much energy is being spent shaking our collective heads at the darker side of the game.

The prolifically talented sportsman enters his second season at the Knights, working tirelessly to ensure a smooth transition from fullback to the five-eighth position. He doesn't feel the weight of expectation, doesn't sense the added responsibility of being a role model. All his energies are instead being poured into improving as a footballer.

"I've never really thought of myself like that, it's preseason now and that's all I'm really focusing on. I've only had one full year in the game at the professional level, so for me it's just about performing on the field," Ponga tells ESPN.

"I'm not going to worry about what other people are doing off the field, that's their business, I have no control over that. I can only control what I do - on and off the field."

Despite an incredible start to his rugby league career, which peaked last season with selection for Queensland in the State of Origin series, Ponga's feet remain firmly grounded. He recently took part in an advertising campaign for V8 Juice, where he was thrown into the role of a single parent of three children for a day to compare his calorie usage against playing a game of rugby league. It only added to his appreciation of his current lifestyle.

"I thought this idea would be interesting and honestly I thought it would be an easy day, but being in a parent's shoes was a lot harder than I thought and made me appreciate all that my parents have done for me," Ponga said.

"I think I've always been pretty appreciative and realised that I am in a lucky position, but doing it and seeing how hard it is first hand, I know I shouldn't really complain about my job, I'm getting to live my dream."

Growing up Ponga excelled at just about every sport he tried. He was very handy at golf as a teenager, played rugby union, league and soccer, was scouted by AFL's Brisbane Lions and even tried hockey. He played all sports for the enjoyment, but was drawn to rugby league for the camaraderie. The decision to make it his career came largely down to the persistence of North Queensland Cowboys.

"It's the team environment I enjoy, having to have trust in your teammates, you don't have that feeling in a sport like golf," Ponga said.

"It was probably the opportunity that the Cowboys gave me and my family, which followed on to the opportunity here at the Knights. I'm happy, I love rugby league."

Ponga's immediate challenge is to step into the No. 6 jersey at the Knights. The role of fullback has evolved over the years to the point where they spend a lot more time in the backline, setting up outside backs with their deft passing games. The only real difference now between the No. 1 and No. 6 positions is the added defensive work that comes with standing in the front line.

The change of position excites Ponga. He won't be basing his playing style on any other five-eighths, thanks mainly to some advice he received from the player who started and mastered the evolution of the fullback role.

"I don't really want to model my game on someone else. A bit of advice that Billy Slater gave to me was that no matter what you're doing, make sure you do it in your own way and I think I'm going to take on that for my career and how I play my footy," Ponga said.

"I need to build more combinations and trust (at five-eighth). It's a position where you're in the front line and you have to work with the players around you. I don't mind the extra defence, I know teams are going to try and get at me more in the halves."

The shift may make State of Origin selection a tad trickier for him, however. With Billy Slater retiring, Ponga would seem to be the natural fit to take over at fullback. Then again, despite the efforts of Michael Morgan and Cameron Munster, no one has really nailed down the No. 6 jersey since Johnathan Thurston's retirement either.

"I'd love to be back in the Maroons jersey, but having said that, I'm playing in the No. 6 for the Knights and that's where my focus is. But I'll take any jersey they give me for Queensland, I'd play in the front-row if that's where they wanted me," Ponga said.

To catch the eye of the selectors he will have to have another strong start for the Knights. Ponga realises that Newcastle need to challenge for a finals berth this season, after the disappointment of last year.

"We were pretty disappointed with the middle and end of our season last year. We had injuries that didn't help our combinations," Ponga said.

"If we don't improve on last year we'll definitely be disappointed, that's pretty obvious. We have no pass mark set, but you don't go through the hours of training in preseason not to make the top eight, even top four. Once you get in the finals anything can happen from there."

"There are some very proud and passionate fans here which is good to see and I like living in a town like that. I enjoy seeing the people get behind us.

"When you put that jersey on, you think of all the players that went before you. Running on for that first game last year in front of 25,000 fans was awesome, when you get that support every week, it's awesome.

"A lot of people doubted my decision to move to the Knights, but they are probably biting their tongues now."

Ponga is still just scratching the surface of what looms as an incredible NRL career. He is the kind of player that brings opposing fans to their feet with a begrudging acknowledgement of his often unstoppable abilities.

He might not realise it, but he is also the kind of person that rugby league needs to lead the game out of the mire being created by others with less talent and far less humility.