Michael Cheika reaches out to Ponga in a bold bid to lure the NRL superstar to rugby, via Dean Ritchie.
Michael Cheika reaches out to Ponga in a bold bid to lure the NRL superstar to rugby, via Dean Ritchie.

Ponga bombshell: Wallabies plan to poach NRL star

A HEAVYWEIGHT battle has erupted for Kalyn Ponga's prized signature, with Wallabies coach Michael Cheika confirming he has spoken to the NRL superstar about a defection to rugby union.

Cheika has confirmed he had a private phone conversation with Ponga to gauge his interest in a shock switch back to rugby union, his childhood sport in New Zealand.

While admitting the call had been made, Cheika on THursday said he wanted to keep details of the discussion confidential.

He wouldn't comment any further on Ponga given the star fullback is fully focused on Newcastle and Queensland.

There was no official offer made during the phone call - and no mention of what Super Rugby franchise Ponga would represent - but the interest was genuine and passionate.

And it isn't the first time Cheika - preparing for the looming World Cup - has spoken about Ponga.

Before the start of this season, Cheika spoke with player agent Wayde Rushton - who also manages Ponga - about the future of an unnamed player.

At the end of the meeting, Cheika asked Rushton about Ponga and allegedly said "let us know anytime Kalyn may want to come across. We'd be interested in talking to you."

It has also been reported third-party representatives connected to New Zealand Super Rugby franchises have also made quiet approaches to Rushton.

Ponga starred for Queensland in Game I. Picture: AAP
Ponga starred for Queensland in Game I. Picture: AAP

Ponga, 21, still has two-and-a-half years remaining on his current Newcastle deal clubs however franchises in Australia and New Zealand - from both league and union - have already held internal discussions about how and when an approach could be made.

On an existing contract at Newcastle worth around $600,000 a season, rival clubs have already stated his value would now stand between $900,000 to $1m a season.

Those at Rugby Australia privately believe Ponga - should he switch to rugby union - would join a New Zealand Super Rugby franchise before an inevitable rise into an All Blacks jumper.

Ponga lived in Palmerston North on New Zealand's North Island between the ages of eight and 13.

The electric fullback cut his rugby teeth at famous famous rugby nursery The Anglican Church Grammar School (Churchie).

Cheika's phone conversation late last year was seen as a 'nothing to lose' moment.

One source close to Rugby Australia said: "There would be no embarrassment in trying to get Kalyn Ponga to rugby union. That would be smart."

The Knights are yet to offer Kalyn Ponga an upgraded contract. Picture: Getty
The Knights are yet to offer Kalyn Ponga an upgraded contract. Picture: Getty

With its expanded international exposure, Ponga could earn anywhere between $500,000 to a $1m a year in endorsements and sponsorships by becoming the face of Australian rugby.

His profile would more than substitute for the loss of Israel Folau.

Ponga is however thriving on playing rugby league and has been heavily instrumental in Newcastle's six-game winning run and Queensland's victory over NSW last week in Brisbane.

He will be a key player in Newcastle's big match against Melbourne tomorrow at AAM Park.

Ponga has never stated categorically he would a return to rugby union but has spoken multiple times of an interest in his boyhood sport. New Zealand Super rugby franchises are closely monitoring Ponga's form and future.

Newcastle isn't being pressured to re-sign Ponga but is aware of the increasing interest. Knights officials are though said to be "comfortable" with the situation. Rushton was not commenting on Thursday.

In a Channel 9 podcast, rugby league premiership-winning coach Phil Gould was concerned Ponga could be lost to rugby union.

"Kalyn could go to European rugby and earn $2.5 million a year. God knows what he could earn at the All Blacks with endorsements and all that type of thing," Gould said.

"It's also up to the NRL, I believe. The NRL have got to assist the Knights in keeping Kalyn Ponga. He's a marquee player in our game. The NRL have got to find endorsements and opportunities for him, and make him a part of their marketing."