Ponga’s absence forces Knights to regain their steel

Scott Bailey |

Daniel Saifiti (l) says Kalyn Ponga’s absence has forced the Knights to rethink their strategy.
Daniel Saifiti (l) says Kalyn Ponga’s absence has forced the Knights to rethink their strategy.

Newcastle prop Daniel Saifiti has labelled Kalyn Ponga’s injury as a turning point in their NRL season, with his absence giving the Knights a new-found steeliness.

The Knights have won their last two games without Ponga, holding on for gritty wins over both the Dolphins and Warriors.

The victories have put them back within touching distance of the top eight, after a horror start to the year where they dropped five of their first seven.  

That run culminated in a 36-12 flogging from Canterbury three weeks ago, with Ponga limping from the field with a bad foot injury.

The superstar fullback remains one of the game’s best attacking threats, claiming last year’s Dally M after starring in Newcastle’s late run to the finals.

But Saifiti believes the Knights needed to be reminded how to win ugly, rather than be a team that piles on points.

“It probably took losing Kalyn to realise what works for us is them tough gritty wins,” Saifiti told AAP ahead of Saturday’s clash with Wests Tigers. 

“It shouldn’t have taken that. But it was really disappointing against the Dogs. To bounce back the last couple of weeks like we have with gritty wins. 

“We haven’t put a lot of points on but our goal line defence has been really gritty and steely. That’s what we built our season off last year.”

Newcastle averaged 35 points per game on their end-of-season run to the finals last year, in their best streaks since the days of Andrew Johns.

But just as important was the fact they only conceded 13 points a game in that period.

“That’s what won us them 10 games last year, was that steeliness,” Saifiti said.

“Kalyn might have determined how many points we won by. But it was our defence and our grittiness that built those wins.” 

Saifiti himself has endured a slow start to 2024, before being one of the Knights’ best against the Warriors last week.

One of the key differences remains the lack of early-set punch for Newcastle, with winger Dom Young’s absence being felt in the middle.

“We spoke about it last year, no one’s metres were real high,” Saifiti said. 

“But this year, Jacob (Saifiti) and that have had a lot of carries. 

“Last year we could rely on our back five to carry out of yardage and we would be ‘d’ up in the middle. 

“I thought we did that well (against the Warriors). We were moving well in defence and the outside backs repaid us by carrying out of trouble. 

“There were a lot of defensive lapses in the middle (early in the year), but the last couple of weeks they haven’t been there.”

Meanwhile, the Tigers have confirmed to AAP that Saturday’s match in Tamworth will be the last they host in the country music capital.

With their stadia policy still being negotiated, the Tigers will play all home games in Sydney next year, with the only possible exception being Magic Round in Brisbane.