Ponga sets stage for Maroons No.1 battle
Kalyn Ponga has set his sights on starting 2020 in flying fashion ahead of a duel with NFL returnee Valentine Holmes for Queensland's No.1 jersey.
Ponga will make his first playing appearance of the year for the Maori All Stars on Saturday night at Cbus Super Stadium on the Gold Coast.
The 21-year-old has completed a solid pre-season in his preferred position at fullback and said the standard of training at Newcastle had lifted since coach Adam O'Brien replaced Nathan Brown.
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Ponga spent the 2019 pre-season training at five-eighth, but lasted only three games in the No. 6 jersey before returning to his preferred position.
He scored the Maroons fullback duties for the State of Origin series, but was injured in Queensland's heavy Game Two loss and missed the decider.
Cameron Munster starred for Queensland in the No. 1 jersey in Ponga's absence, however it is Cowboys fullback Holmes who shapes as his biggest rival for the custodian duties this year.
Ponga said he wanted to get off to a strong start in 2020 ahead of Origin selection.
"Training has been good, it's been tough," he said.
"The standard is a lot higher than previous years. It's definitely been enjoyable.
"(Five-eighth) was a good experience. It was different for me, I got to learn a different perspective of the game.
"Now I'm back in the number one it definitely feels good. I'm back at home in the number one jersey.
"I wasn't in that last (Origin) game. It sucked, I was injured so I couldn't really help but I wanted to be out there.
"There are things I'm more determined to do before (Origin) and if I do those things and perform well it will give me an opportunity to be in that jersey."
At 21, Ponga is still in the infancy of his NRL career, having played 49 games for the Cowboys and Knights since debuting for North Queensland in 2016.
He struggled to bounce back from his calf injury as the Knights bumbled late in the season and Brown was sacked.
Ponga said O'Brien had been "pretty good" since taking the reins at Newcastle and he was itching to run out against the Indigenous All Stars after losing last year's clash.
"(O'Brien) is pretty detailed, he's quite an intense person but on the flip side you can have a laugh with him," Ponga said.
"He takes on board how you're feeling and if you have any ideas and stuff like that. He's been pretty good.
"This is the first game of the season. It's for my culture, who I am, my mum and dad.
"Hopefully I get off to a good start and keep going from there."