Kalyn Ponga does not begrudge Warriors match-winner Roger Tuivasa-Sheck the 2018 Dally M Medal but does want to outplay his fellow fullback at Mt Smart Stadium on Sunday.
The battle of the two No.1s, who ran one and two in Dally M Medal voting last year, is likely to go a long way towards determining the outcome of the game between teams chasing just their third win of the season.
Tuivasa-Sheck polled three points in the Warriors’ final-round game against Canberra to finish on 29 and become the first player in the club’s history to win the coveted individual award.
The elusive former Sydney Roosters premiership-winner leapfrogged Ponga, who was injured and missed Newcastle’s last game against the Dragons so could not add to his tally of 27.
"He deserved it. He had an awesome year and off the back of that year, he’s performing this year, so it just shows how good he was last year and how good he is now," Ponga said.
A prodigious talent in multiple sports as a teenager, Ponga said he and Tuivasa-Sheck had become friends since a phone call five years ago.
"He called me when I was 16," Ponga said.
"I spoke to him a little bit and met him a few times, so I’ve known him for a little while … I think I was looking around and I remember having a phone call with him."
Tuivasa-Sheck, who missed their 13-12 extra-time loss to Melbourne on Anzac Day because of a hamstring injury, is one of three key Warriors named to return against Newcastle.
Ponga, who was named 2018 RLPA Players’ Champion, hoped the Knights could contain the Warriors’ captain and wingers David Fusitua and Ken Maumalo so he was not left stranded having to make a one-on-one tackle.
"He’s a freak, and a good bloke too," Ponga said.
"I always want to get over my opposition number and it just happens to be him, and he’s a freak, so I definitely want to get over him but I’m not thinking about him too much.
"Whatever he does, I’m not going to try to do better because I do different things better, so I’ll just focus on my game and what I can do for my team."
Newcastle have lost six straight and 12 of their past 13 at Mt Smart Stadium but Ponga, who spent part of his childhood growing up in Palmerston North, expects to see some familiar faces in the crowd.
"I think I’ll have a fair bit of family there this weekend, which is always a good thing – to go back there and give them an opportunity to watch me live is pretty cool – so for myself, it’s like going and playing in a home game, sort of thing," he said.
"But for a lot of the boys it’s not, and it’s a mental challenge to go over there, so we’ve got to get that right."
Knights captain Mitchell Pearce has dismissed Newcastle’s wretched record in Auckland as a non-factor. Pearce, who won just twice there in seven trips with the Roosters, said the Knights were motivated more by the need to consolidate their 28-14 victory over Parramatta last Sunday.
"Personally, I’m not looking at our track record of how many losses we’ve had there, and obviously we’ve got a lot of new players here that I don’t think would be too mentally scarred from that," Pearce said.
"I can’t answer why the club hasn’t won too many times before over there, but I know from playing over there myself with the Roosters, if your prep was good and your camaraderie is good, you normally play well.
"I don’t think that’s at the forefront of our motivation. Going over there and backing up that competitive style of footy we played last week and getting a win, regardless of where we’re playing, is our main priority.
"I don’t think the boys need any more motivation. It’s a big month of footy for us and we’ve been kissed on the backside a bit with some poor performances because there’s several other teams in the same position and it’s actually not a bad situation to end up on the ladder at the moment, so the next month of footy is huge for a lot of teams."