Kalyn Ponga goes public with NRL retirement bombshell after State of Origin recall for QLD

The Newcastle Knights fullback has revealed how close he was to calling it quits.

Kalyn Ponga has opened up on how close he came to retiring from the NRL last year, revealing on Monday that he seriously considered walking away from the game. Ponga was named on the bench for Queensland ahead of the State of Origin decider at Suncorp Stadium next Wednesday, and will play his first Origin game since 2022.

Last year he opted out of playing for the Maroons so he could focus on club footy with the Newcastle Knights and repay them for sticking by him. Ponga felt he owed it to the Knights after he missed a large chunk of footy due to repeated concussions, with the club helping him get back on track.

Kalyn Ponga.
Kalyn Ponga is back in the Queensland State of Origin team, but he nearly retired from the NRL in 2023. Image: Getty

Ponga has also had an injury-disrupted season in 2024, and has only played one game for the Knights in the last three months. But Billy Slater has shown huge faith in him for the Origin decider, picking him on the bench as an X-factor to work in tandem with fullback Reece Walsh.

Ponga said he's in a much better head space this year after seriously considering retiring from the NRL in 2023. Speaking to reporters on Monday, the 26-year-old said he thought he might never play again because of the concussions he was suffering.

Kalyn Ponga, pictured here in action for Newcastle against Canberra.
Kalyn Ponga in action for Newcastle against Canberra. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

“After the year I had, to go through what I went through with the concussions and almost having to retire, it was a nice ending to the year," he said about winning the Dally M medal in 2023. “It (retiring from the NRL) was a real reality for me there. [Winning the Dally M] gave me that personal validation. Just that the hard work and commitment does pay off.

“I have never really doubted myself. I always wanted to be back in this arena and I was never going to close the door to it (playing for Queensland). It’s great to be back. It was a difficult period for me at the beginning and middle of last year.

“I wasn’t ready mentally and physically for this arena. I was coming back from everything that was going on with me personally, so the decision was made by Billy and myself, it was the best thing for me at that period in time. I have always been pretty grateful of the position I’m in.

“I’ve always had that mindset when you go to a low point, everything is good after that. The way I finished (winning the Dally M), I was extremely grateful, but I know what it takes now to be at the top and be the best version for myself and my teammates.”

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Ponga has previously mentioned in passing that he thought he might have to retire last year. But Monday's comments were the first that seemed to suggest it was a serious possibility and almost eventuated.

On Monday, he said he was excited about the prospect of combining with Walsh, but admitted he wasn't sure how Slater plans to utilise him off the bench. Slater was also picked hooker Harry Grant on the interchange, meaning Ponga will likely play more of a roaming role when he gets on the field.

“I have been thinking about that for a little while,” Ponga said about playing with Walsh. “It’s pretty exciting, I have visions of him going down the sideline and passing it back into me.

“I love what everyone else does watching him. His speed, elusiveness, how exciting he is, everything. My job when I come on, I still haven’t worked that out, but I just have to give him the footy and let him open up I guess. I am excited by what everyone watches and sees.”