Maroons legend Ponga's No.1 fan
BILLY Slater stands in awe of Kalyn Ponga - even at training.
"If you ever get a chance to watch Kalyn Ponga train ... he gets the ball in two hands, moves across the turf ... it's just effortless," Slater said.
"The only other guy I saw do that with such grace was Darren Lockyer ... just the way they glide across the paddock."
Slater was a 20-year-old thrust into the Origin arena who had the great Lockyer to learn off.
"He simplified playing on the big stage for me, and how you should prepare," Slater recalled.
The 31-game Origin legend is now passing on his wisdom to Ponga, 21, who is about make his third appearance for the Maroons and second in Slater and Lockyer's old No.1 jersey.
The retired Storm champion has been spending time with him during Maroons training sessions before each game.
"He's got so many great attributes," Slater said. "I just want Kalyn to be the best version of Kalyn.
"For me, to have the ability and the knowledge to pass on and help accelerate his development as a fullback, that's great. I feel a great privilege to be able to do that.
"But, at the end of the day, Kalyn is a special player and that's got nothing to do with me. What he's doing in a maroon jersey, what he's doing for the Knights is pretty special at the age of 21.
"I work on the little stuff that creates the foundation to building a long-term career in the position that I played.
"It took me nearly two decades to perfect that. Hopefully I can give him that knowledge in the early parts of his career.
"He will evolve it.
"He does things I never did on the field. He does things no one has done on the field before.
"It's important to keep him unique, keep him who he is.
"He doesn't do a whole heap wrong. I've got to look at his game with a fine tooth comb, go through it thoroughly."
Broncos great and now Maroons assistant coach Justin Hodges has been equally impressed by Ponga on the training park.
"Telling the boys what he wants, where he wants them to be, what he wants them to do," Hodges said.
"That takes a lot of courage when you're 21 and talking to players who've been there and done it before.
"That comes with an understanding that he's one of the best players in the game, he's earned the right to be there."
The fullback will again be the centre of attention on Sunday night in Perth. He'll be the closest thing to a Western Australian out there - born in the north-west mining town of Port Hedland to a Kiwi dad and Aussie mum.
He spent two years out west, and then a handful more in each of Mt Isa, Palmerston North, Mackay, and Brisbane at boarding school.
A scholarship with the Broncos was superseded by a contract with the Cowboys, which was ultimately trumped by a bigger one from the Knights.
He turned down an invitation to link with the NZ Kiwis in 2016 after just two NRL games. He considered himself a Queenslander from a young age.
"I always wanted to play for Queensland," he said this week.
"I always felt at home in Australia and wanted to wear the Maroon jersey, but I had to make sure that (my family) was right with it, and they were right with it.
"I wasn't torn. I have a lot of family back in New Zealand and I wanted to make (dad) proud and them proud, and I am doing that now."
A tug of war has seemingly continued, with the Wallabies showing interest after it was revealed coach Michael Cheika had made contact. Union was the game that brought his dad Andre to Australia in 1989.
Ponga was tight-lipped about the exchange this week, Slater likewise focused on what they're both trying to achieve with the Maroons.
"From my dealings with Kalyn, he's really happy in Newcastle, he's enjoying his footy," Slater said. "At the end of the day, I wish him all the best in whatever he wants to do. The last thing I would be doing is trying to put pressure on the young fella to do some-thing he doesn't want to do."
Right now what Ponga wants is to experience another win in the maroon jersey. It will be just his second game starting.
"The first 10 or 20 minutes (of Origin I) is the fastest footy I have ever played. It was intense but it was good. I felt comfortable being at the back and being in my position," he said.