Benji Marshall says the Newcastle Knights should seriously consider moving Kalyn Ponga to the halves in a bid to rescue a season that is quickly spiralling out of control.
The Knights were an early surprise packet, winning their opening two matches against the Roosters and Tigers to dispel concerns of a slide after back-to-back finals campaigns.
But five-straight losses, including Sunday’s humiliating 39-2 drubbing at the hands of Parramatta, have squarely put the spotlight back on Newcastle — and Ponga in particular.
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Ponga recently re-signed with the Knights on a five-year deal reportedly worth $1-million-a-season, ending months of speculation.
What it did not end though is question marks over how Newcastle can get the best out of its marquee man, who has been underwhelming outside of a breakout game against the Dragons.
Ponga recorded 178 run metres, nine tackle busts, seven offloads, two linebreak assists, one try assist and a try in the defeat to St. George Illawarra.
It was far and away Ponga’s best game of the year given he has otherwise averaged just 99 metres, two tackle busts and 0.5 offloads in his other four appearances this year.
He is also yet to set up a try or linebreak in those games.
Speaking on Triple M on Monday, Marshall suggested a move to five-eighth, where Ponga has played four games in his NRL career, could help get the Knights back on track.
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“I just don’t think he’s getting the same amount of good ball that the other fullbacks in the competition are getting. If you can’t get him the ball, move him closer. He’s played there before.”
Marshall also added that Anthony Milford could be a wildcard option that will ease playmaking pressure on Ponga.
Milford is not permitted to play in the NRL until Round 11 and while he would need to gain match fitness, Marshall believes he could have an immediate impact.
“I reckon in three weeks’ time, Anthony Milford will be in there somewhere and that could free him up,” Marshall said.
“They need something. It’s hard because the last few weeks they’ve been dominated in the middle so they don’t have the same platform to play off as other teams.
“You could obviously see they weren’t there mentally. They were just poor in defensive efforts. I can’t work the Knights out. They’ve got so many good players in their team, so many people who should be leading the club to more victories but for some reason the last five weeks have just been average.”
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Whatever the answer is, what is clear is that there is only more pressure on Ponga to deliver on a more consistent basis given the million-dollar contract he recently signed.
Steve ‘Blocker’ Roach said in Fox League’s coverage of the game on Sunday that the Knights are giving Ponga the ball but not in the right position.
“I know he wants to get involved in the play but running one out next to the ruck is not what he should be doing,” Roach said.
“He’s setting himself on the outside of his halves, like they were earlier on in the season, always trying to get into the game, but there’s better ways than that.”
Speaking on Fox League on Sunday night, Newcastle great Matty Johns said the Knights don’t necessarily need to come out against the Storm this week and put on a show.
Rather, to start to win back the fanbase, Johns said all they need to do is show more “effort”.
“The fans up there what they want to see, talent is the icing on the cake, but they like effort,” he said.
“I thought today there was effort there but you’ve got to give more. Parramatta played a really strong, physical game and Newcastle simply didn’t meet the challenge.”
That challenge will only be more difficult this week as the Knights prepare to host the high-flying Storm, who destroyed the Warriors 70-10 on Monday night.