‘Ponga isn’t our saviour’: O’Brien

Newcastle Knights coach Adam O’Brien isn’t worried about returning star Kalyn Ponga receiving “illegal” treatment, and he insists the fullback doesn’t have to be the Knights “saviour” amid the club’s injury crisis.

Ponga will play his first NRL game since off-season shoulder surgery against the Titans on the Gold Coast on Saturday.

The flyer’s return is perfect timing given Newcastle’s horror injury toll and suspension list, which includes halfback Mitchell Pearce sidelined for at least 10 weeks with a pectoral tear.

O’Brien can’t wait to see Ponga back in the No 1 jumper, but he won’t be placing expectation to save the Knights on his shoulders.

“There is not a whole lot of pressure on KP to come back and be the saviour,” O’Brien said.

“It is more about us continuing on that spirit we showed, everyone do their individual jobs and let Kalyn be himself.

“I’m excited for KP to return. The thing he loves doing is being out there with his mates playing footy, and I’m really excited to see him get back out there and do that again.”

Cronulla’s Chad Townsend got his marching orders for a high hit on Kalyn Ponga last season. Picture: Supplied.Source:Supplied

Regardless of Newcastle’s internal view of Ponga, the reality is there will be significant pressure on the Queensland Origin representative to perform strongly.

O’Brien also knows his gun No 1 is often the target of opposition teams, as seen on multiple occasions last season, but he isn’t apprehensive about rivals taking his fullback out with unlawful tactics.

“No, not in terms of illegal, I’m not concerned,” he said.

“He is a pretty cool customer, and he understands that teams go after him when he is playing, and they like to get stuck into him.

“As I said last year, he never whinges about it, he is a tough competitor, and he will handle it fine.

“They will go after him, but when you are a marquee player in this game you wear that as a badge of honour when they go after you.

“We’ll have some plans in place to help KP in that regard, but I’m not concerned about anything illegal, and I think the officials will take care of anything like that.”

North Queensland’s Jake Clifford could be Newcastle bound this season. Picture: Alix SweeneySource:News Corp Australia

It comes as O’Brien confirmed the Knights could lure 2022 signing Jake Clifford from North Queensland to the Hunter this season to help boost the club’s playmaking ranks.

Newcastle’s indifferent start to the season has prompted critics to suggest the wheels have already fallen off at the Knights.

O’Brien, though, hasn’t lost hope in his side’s high aspirations this season.

“Look, the thing I will say is that the team has been a fighting chance in both losses (to the Tigers and Dragons),” he said.

“There are plenty of teams that are two from four who probably haven’t gone through the resilience that the team went through on the weekend.

“So, I know what we are about and what we are capable of, and I know we will get some personnel back, but the thing I’m proud of is the personnel at the moment are showing a lot of character.”

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