Newcastle Knights coach Adam O'Brien admits he fully expects Canberra to target the injured shoulder of Kalyn Ponga, in Sunday's do-or-die NRL finals clash. Newcastle's inspirational skipper goes into the home elimination final under a massive injury cloud, with an image of the fullback on social media sure to make Knights fans more than a little nervous.
The NRL Physio account posted a photo of Ponga in his Knights training gear that showed a significant amount of padding on his troublesome right shoulder. The post was captioned: "Kalyn Ponga with a fair padding/strapping job to protect his high grade AC joint injury.
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"Will also receive pain killing injection to play this weekend. Pain management the big issue, will be extremely sore if he cops another blow to it."
Kalyn Ponga with a fair padding/strapping job to protect his high grade AC joint injury. Will also receive pain killing injection to play this weekend. Pain management the big issue, will be extremely sore if he cops another blow to it pic.twitter.com/k0DP8yCBNO
— NRL PHYSIO (@nrlphysio) September 7, 2023
The last point looms as the most crucial for Ponga and the Knights, with Ricky Stuart's Raiders sure to test out Ponga's shoulder as early and as much as they can on Sunday. O'Brien admits that's exactly what he would want his players to do if the shoe was on the other foot, and has no problem with the Raiders adopting the tactic so long as Ponga is not illegally targeted.
"If I was coach, I would (target him). It's like Billy Slater when he came up against Ricky's teams, he always copped a lot of attention," O'Brien said.
"I think he's at the top of everyone's tip sheet every week. And that's fine, I think as long as it's within the rules of the game, then it's open slather and KP understands that.
"But if it's outside the rules, if he's going to get hit late or anything outside the rules I expect the rules to be enforced. I know that they will want to make this a street fight, they will want to slow it down and make it as gritty as possible."
Kalyn Ponga's form key to Newcastle's winning streak
The blistering form of Ponga over the last few months has been central to Newcastle's stunning nine-game winning streak that saw them rise from 14th on the NRL ladder to secure a home elimination final courtesy of a fifth-placed finish at the end of the regular season. Crucially, the 25-year-old trained on Thursday without the need of painkillers and said "the shoulder is good" - albeit under minimal physical contact.
Ponga is fully expected to have the shoulder needled up on Sunday but said coming through Thursday's session unscathed filled him with confidence ahead of the crunch clash with Canberra. "I trained today, got everything I needed out of it. So pretty confident I am playing Sunday," he said.
"Today was that biggest session, to tick that off gives me confidence into Sunday. I'll do everything I can to manage what I can leading into the game. But I do feel pretty good. I'm pretty excited about the occasion."
League greats Gorden Tallis and Braith Anasta said on NRL 360 during the week that Ponga should be able to manage the injury with painkillers, but stressed that the first significant contact on that area of his shoulder would be telling.
“I’ll be watching him get up from the first collision," Tallis said. “The thing he’s got to do is make his first touch his best and go straight into collision, test it early and see where he’s at."
Anasta added: “The thing with the AC joint, I’ve had the same (injury) and mine still pops up. He’ll feel it for the rest of the season but you needle it, you don’t feel it much during the game. It’s terrible during the week and then you juice is up the next weekend and you go again."
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