Mentor Johns in awe of ‘frightening’ Ponga

Troy Whittaker |

After more than a decade away from Newcastle’s inner sanctum, club legend Andrew Johns has been mightily impressed upon returning as a coaching consultant.

Johns, who spent the past two seasons on Parramatta’s staff as a halves and spine specialist, will work under Adam O’Brien as the Knights look to build on back-to-back finals appearances.

“It just feels like home,” Johns, whose playing career finished in 2007 after 249 games and two premierships with Newcastle, told SEN 1170 on Thursday.

“I haven’t worked at the club for 13, 14 years now. I needed a break away, but I just feel like now is the right time.

“I’m absolutely loving it – the way the players have responded, getting back in the colours, familiar surroundings, and there are still a lot of support staff who were there when I was there, so they like to reminisce and tell some stories.”

For Knights fans, perhaps the most exciting aspect of Johns’s involvement in the upcoming campaign is the impact he could have on star fullback Kalyn Ponga.

Ponga endured a frustrating season in 2021, with nagging injuries offsetting his customary brilliance, but the 23-year-old has reportedly unlocked a new hunger for success.

“We all know he’s a special player, but up close watching him at training, just the way he moves, the skills, it’s pretty frightening to watch,” Johns said.

“I think he can get better, he’s going to get better. 

“The big thing I’ve tried to implement there is for the players around him to understand what he’s doing in certain situations, because he gets the ball and sometimes you sit back and go, ‘Wow’.

“If we can get everyone in tune – back-rowers, centres, our middle forwards – with the way he plays, we can make him an even better player.”

Johns anointed Chris Randall, who he described as “the fittest in the club”, as Newcastle’s round-one hooker after Jayden Brailey suffered a long-term Achilles injury.

He said halfback Phoenix Crossland could be another makeshift dummy-half option.