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Ponga up for challenge from Holmes for Maroons No.1 jersey

Kalyn Ponga faces competition on two fronts as he prepares for his third NRL campaign in Newcastle.

On the domestic front, Ponga concedes he trails Knights teammate Mason Lino in the goal-kicking stakes. At representative level, the easy-going 21-year-old has welcomed the NRL return of Valentine Holmes, even though it will add pressure on him to retain his Queensland No.1 jersey.

“I haven’t really thought about that. There’s always competition,” Ponga told reporters in Newcastle on Friday.

“Whoever gets to play in that jersey is honoured and proud and will do their best for the jersey and for the state. So if it’s me or if it’s him or if it’s anyone else, I hope they do well.”

Ponga was Queensland’s fullback for the first two games of the 2019 State of Origin series but missed the decider because of a calf injury.

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Holmes played on the wing in all five of his Origin appearances in 2017-18 but he has returned from the NFL to play fullback for North Queensland and will come under consideration as the Maroons try to avoid a third straight Origin series defeat.

Lino finished 2019 as Newcastle’s first-choice goal-kicker and five-eighth, and Ponga is happy for the status quo to remain while Lino has the runs on the board.

“I always look at it that the best person at the job should do the job,” Ponga said.

“Last year Mason came into the team late, and he’s the best goal-kicker at the club, I reckon.

“If Mason’s in the team this year, I’ll let him have the reins, but I’m still going to practise and make sure that I’m ready if I have to.

“I want to be the best and I’m working towards it but if I’m being brutally honest, Mason’s the best. He’s the best technically that I’ve seen and he’s just good at what he does but I want to be the best.”

Lino, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, will face challenges from several other squad members for Newcastle’s No.6 jersey next season but Ponga will not be one of them.

In a much-publicised switch under former Knights mentor Nathan Brown, he played the first three games at five-eighth this year before returning to fullback for the rest of the season, and that is where new coach Adam O’Brien wants him to stay.

O’Brien and his conditioning staff have kept the heat on the Knights at pre-season training this week, despite the heavy, smoky haze that has enveloped the Hunter and much of NSW.

“You don’t really feel it, I don’t reckon, and none of the boys have been complaining about training in it,” Ponga said.

“Obviously it’s not ideal and obviously with the smoke, that means fire, and it’s quite concerning, but in terms of training, it’s all right.

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“Today was probably one of our harder days. It’s been good though. Every day’s hard and every day’s challenging – both physically and mentally – but at the same time it’s enjoyable.”

Ponga and his Newcastle teammates handed out gifts and provided some festive cheer for patients and their families at the John Hunter Children’s Hospital Christmas Party on Friday.

“It’s good for us to experience that and see what they’re going through and hopefully make their day, and in return it makes our day as well,” Ponga said.

“I’ve been here a couple of times and done a fair bit of work with kids in hospitals, and it is an eye-opener, but at the same time you appreciate where you are and stuff like that, so it’s good.”