The return on Kalyn Ponga’s mega $5 million five-year deal has been called into question, despite the Knights superstar escaping punishment over his toilet cubicle scandal.
Ponga’s behaviour came under the microscope after the Newcastle captain was filmed getting booted from a toilet cubicle by a publican last month.
The NRL launched an investigation after footage emerged of Ponga and fellow injured teammate Kurt Mann being escorted out of the cubicle.
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Ponga has been sidelined with concussion since Round 19 and came under fire for drinking while injured – and bringing the club unwanted attention.
But the NRL closed its investigation this week and opted against punishing Ponga and Mann over the incident which prompted calls for the playmaker to be stripped of the captaincy.
The 24-year-old has endured an inconsistent and injury-plagued season and several pundits now believe he’s underperforming both on and off the field.
Ponga is a world-class player on his day but is yet to show the consistency of the other NRL players earning $1 million per season.
That salary places Ponga in the competition’s top five alongside James Tedesco, Ben Hunt, Nathan Cleary and Daly Cherry-Evans.
“He’s got a free pass. The Knights panicked and gave him a five-year deal at a million bucks a year,” NRL 360 co-host Paul Kent said.
“He’s deadset won the lotto because his performances as a player are yet to justify.”
Here, foxsports.com.au analyses how Ponga’s performances for the Knights stack up against his million-dollar peers since he joined the Knights in 2018.
Consistency is almost always the justification clubs give when they hand huge chunks of their salary cap to just one player.
Roosters fullback James Tedesco rarely underperforms, while Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary is one of the most reliable players in the game.
Dragons playmaker Ben Hunt and Sea Eagles No. 7 Daly Cherry-Evans almost always deliver despite playing in struggling sides.
That quartet also rarely miss games through injury or suspension. Ponga however is consistently sidelined.
Tedesco has missed only 13 games of a possible 123 played by the Roosters since 2018, while Ponga has missed 27 of a possible 115 the Knights.
In Ponga’s 88 games for the Knights, he’s been taken from the field without returning 10 times.
Daly Cherry-Evans has missed only nine out of 118 games for Manly in that same period.
Ponga’s fast feet often see him collide with the reaching arms of tired forwards, contributing to the number of HIAs he must complete.
While being injury-prone isn’t a controllable factor, teams desperately need their best players on the park to slot into the top eight.
Sports teams around the world focus on durability when deciding how much cash to splash on a player.
NBA superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, who signed a five-year $228 million supermax extension, has played 70 of a possible 73 playoff games since May 2020.
Clubs expect their most expensive players to deliver wins and the likes of Tedesco and Cleary can single-handedly drag their side to victory.
In the 88 games Ponga has played for the Knights, the club have won only 37 with a 42 per cent win rate.
When without their marquee man, Newcastle have won 11 of 27 games at 40.7 per cent.
Meanwhile, Cleary’s win percentage sits at 73 per cent and Tedesco’s 65 per cent.
Ben Hunt joined the Dragons in 2018 and the club has struggled in that period, only making the finals in his first season with the Red V.
Still, the 32-year-old has a higher win percentage than Ponga at 45 per cent, as does Cherry-Evans at 46 per cent.
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Ponga can be one of the competition’s most potent attacking threats and his dazzling playmaking skills are seen as crucial for the Knights.
But Ponga has failed to deliver consistently in several key statistics since landing in Newcastle in 2018.
He averaged just 0.1 secondary try assists per game, compared to Tedesco’s 0.3, Hunt’s 0.4, and Cherry-Evans’ 0.3
When it comes to linebreaks, Cherry-Evans records 0.9 per game, while Tedesco breaks the line once per game compared to Hunt and Ponga’s 0.7.
Ponga is also hailed as one of the best ballrunners in the NRL, but his tallies are dwarfed by Tedesco — his fullback counterpart.
The Roosters No. 1 averages 0.9 linebreaks per game, while Ponga averages 0.7.
Tedesco also averages more tackle breaks than Ponga’s 4.9 with 6.1 and also averages 64 more running metres per game.
However, in Origin Ponga has far stronger statistics playing for the Maroons where he’s flanked by the most talented Queenslanders in the NRL.
Ponga won man of the match in the series decider this year after recording 247 running metres, 15 tackle breaks, two linebreaks and a try.
In Origin, Ponga averages more try assists with 0.7 compared to Tedesco’s 0.68, while also recording more secondary try assists per game with 0.28, more than Tedesco’s 0.21.
Tedesco averages more running metres (198) and possessions per game.
Kalyn Ponga’s value as a marquee player lies in his ability to put bums on seats.
While he may not deliver the try assists and tries of his peers, Ponga can create magic from nothing and is one of the most marketable players in the NRL.
Ponga also doesn’t have the supporting cast that surrounds several of the NRL’s multimillion-dollar stars.
Cleary is flanked by Luai, Yeo, Fisher-Harris, Edwards and To’o, while James Tedesco has played with Keary, Tupou, Waerea-Hargreaves, Cornder, Crichton and Cronk.
Several have written off Ponga as becoming one of the game’s greats, but one of the Australian’s Brent Read explained the toilet cubicle scandal will also only serve to make him a better player.
“Yes, he is one of the elite players in the game,” Read said on NRL360.
“Wayne Bennett thought he was worth a million dollars.
“There was all this talk about Wayne challenging him and saying do you want to be the player you want to be, but Wayne thought he was worth a million dollars.
“He is a pretty good judge of a footballer.
“In terms of the captaincy, this will make him a better captain. This is the time to sit Kalyn down and say, you have learned something out of this. You have learned a hard lesson.
“He’s your best player. If Newcastle are going to be dragged out of the hole they are in, he will be the man to drag them out of it. No one else.”
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But rugby league great Mark Carroll said Ponga has failed to live up to price tag and called for him to “refund” the Knights.
“Personally I don’t think he is worth a million bucks,” Mark Carroll said on NRL360.
“I think he owes them a refund in some capacity.
“A million-dollar player is someone who is in the top three players week in and week out. Not one week in and three weeks out.”
The talent surrounding Ponga must also be taken into consideration. Insert him into the Cowboys, Panthers, Storm, Roosters and Sharks spines and Ponga would get cleaner ball in better positions.
“I think you could put a lot of million dollar players in that team and they would struggle as well,” Gorden Tallis said on NRL360.
“If you watch Kalyn Ponga in the third Origin, I thought he was worth a million dollars that night in the toughest arena, so is he worth it? Yes.
“Does he have a lot of support there? No. Are Newcastle struggling for a lot of reasons? Yes.
“But I do think that he is a million dollar player.”