Connor Watson has revealed just how close Kalyn Ponga came to retiring in 2023, before a staggering return to form that saw him win the Dally M medal. Ponga suffered yet another concussion in the second round of the season against the Wests Tigers, and didn't play again for the next 10 weeks.
It was his fourth head knock in the space of just six months, which forced him to consider his future and seriously contemplate retirement. The Newcastle Knights fullback headed over to Canada to receive specialist treatment from leading experts in concussion and head trauma, before heading back to Australia and making his return to the field.
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His second half of the season was nothing short of incredible, with Ponga leading the Knights to the second week of the finals and claiming the Dally M medal as player of the year. The 25-year-old has previously revealed how he seriously contemplated calling it quits and walking away from the NRL at the height of his concussion dramas.
And on Tuesday, former teammate Watson lifted the lid on how close Ponga came to giving it all away. “At one point in the season he thought he was a chance of retiring,” Ponga's former Knights teammate Watson told SEN radio.
“When he went over to Canada, there was a chance that he might have to call it, I know he spoke about it in his Dally M speech, about how he wants to start making people proud of him. One thing that Kalyn does have is a mindset that when he focuses on something and he really goes after it, he’s one of those people where it just seems like nothing will take his eyes off that or break that confidence.”
Kalyn Ponga enjoying life on and off NRL field
Watson said Ponga's ability to stay on the field for the remainder of the season worked wonders for his confidence and game-play. “Over the last few years, it’s been like in for a couple of weeks, start to find some form and then get a concussion or injured, it’s just been that kind of cycle for the last couple of years," he added.
“It didn’t really allow him to play consistent footy for Newcastle, I think just him being on the field and they’ve had a lot of new guys come in this year, being able to spend some time with them. That 10 weeks of footy was just crazy, I didn't know if he would win the Dally M, I thought he might have come close but it’s pretty crazy to think that he missed around eight games and still won the Dally M. It shows how good he was this year.”
Ponga pipped Shaun Johnson by a single point to win the first Dally M of his career. During his victory speech he said: "I have a lot of people to thank - my family, the staff and my teammates. The way I played this year is impossible without your support and love and belief in me. I had an early-season holiday and when I was over there I decided I wanted to stop letting people down, and yeah, what a year."
Speaking before the finals, Ponga also revealed how new girlfriend Gabrielle Peak has helped him stay grounded and contributed to his stellar season. “Gab has simplified where I put my time and effort and my love,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald. “She’s created more clarity for me. Life’s pretty easy. I focus on footy, focus on family and friends, I focus on Gab, and enjoy the little things...She has definitely slowed life down for me."
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