NRL’s Kiwi-bred prodigy Kalyn Ponga nearly defected to AFL

Fast-emerging Knights superstar Kalyn Ponga came very close to quitting rugby league – and for the AFL, not rugby union.


While there were denials at the time from all involved, Ponga – who has Māori heritage and a “proud Kiwi” dad, but was born and raised in Australia – had signed a deal with the Brisbane Lions in May 2016 and made up his mind he would walk out on the game at end of that season.

It was only when Ponga was handed a shock debut by the North Queensland Cowboys during the NRL finals series later that year that he had a change of heart and realised a league career was what he wanted to pursue.

Despite having agreed to a four-year contract with the the AFL club, Lions officials were not prepared to play hardball with the teenager and wished him all the best.

Ponga’s father Andre said a big reason he joined the Knights was because “the systems reminded us a lot of the systems in place at the Brisbane Lions”.

Now 20, Ponga was no stranger to Australian rules football and was part of the Lions’ development programmes from 15. He was invited by the Lions one year to experience what happened at an AFL combine and draft on the Gold Coast.

As a result of his exposure to the game, Ponga was expected to make a smoother transition to league, unlike high-profile code hoppers Israel Folau and Karmichael Hunt.

The Lions were so determined to sign Ponga two years ago that several top-ranking club officials hopped on a plane and flew to Townsville. They had plans to turn him into a midfielder. There had been talks with former coach Justin Leppitsch and current coach Chris Fagan.

Ponga’s family, including his father Andre, mother Adine and sister Kayley, all agreed they would leave Townsville and relocate to Brisbane. It was what Ponga wanted.


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