The early indication was that Kalyn Ponga wouldn’t play in this year’s All Stars game. Coming off ankle surgery, compounded by the fact Newcastle’s semi final aspirations rest largely on his young shoulders, it was assumed Ponga would put the Knights first and make himself unavailable.
But a conversation with his Maori father, and some stern words from his non-Kiwi mother, convinced him to lace up the boots for this Friday’s clash against the Indigenous All Stars in Melbourne.
“When he came to me he was pretty honest,” Andre Ponga told NRL.com.
“He said, ‘Dad do I have to play?’ ‘Am I going to be able to play, for starters?’ The Knights had to be on board with that and it’s a big credit to the Knights to allow him because they understand that this is important for us as a family.
"Kalyn’s main priority is the Knights, first and foremost. And I understand that. And so it should be. I’ve always been wary about how I talk to him about the Maori side.
“When he came to us and spoke about it, I gave him the full vision, but at the end of the day it has to be his decision. I was trying to be all fatherly and talk to him about the big picture hoping he would say yes. But his mum just started giving it to him as if she was some staunch Maori.
"In my head I was thinking, ‘stop it, you’re putting him off’. It was quite funny actually but she almost ruined my soft and calm approach by scaring him.”
Ponga’s family will be flying to Melbourne on Friday to watch their son play, describing Kalyn’s selection as one of the proudest moments of their life.
“As far as pride goes, this is up there with the two best things he’s achieved, playing Origin last year and winning the New Zealand under 13s golf,” Andre said.
“How he did that and what he did to achieve that – the road that he took to actually win that tournament, only me and mum know.”
Ponga had a huge decision to make last year when deciding whether to pledge his allegiance to Queensland and Australia or to New Zealand.
He’s since represented Queensland but the All Stars game gives him the opportunity to honour his father’s family bloodline.
Maori men and women unite for hymn
“I’m on a massive high,” he said.
“We make sure he honours what he does. In no way were we ever disrespecting our Maori heritage when he chose to play for Queensland. And in no way is he disrespecting Queensland or Australia by playing for the Maori.
“You have to make the most of opportunities, because they may never happen again. He knows it’s a privilege playing footy. Based on that, and also his mum telling him ‘it’s your heritage, bro’, he knows where he is at. As a father I’m not only proud but thankful I have a son that thinks outside of himself.”
Ponga was going to represent a non-NRL aligned Maori side in New Zealand in the off-season before joining the Knights last year, even reaching out to Kevin Walters for advice.
“We went home last year and he was going to play for the Maori side against a New Zealand Invitational team back at home,” Andre said.
“He ended up just being water boy because his shoulder wasn’t quite right, but he spoke to Kevvie Walters and got his blessing. Kalyn wanted to know if it would hinder the chances of him being eligible for Queensland.
“Turns out it didn’t matter because it wasn’t a recognised game but Kevvie has always encouraged Kalyn to accept his heritage. He encouraged Kalyn to pursue it. At the end of the day Kalyn’s a proud Australian and we’re proud that he accepts it. He has to feel good within himself and who he is.”