When Jackson Hastings met Kalyn Ponga for the first time the Newcastle star was every bit “the coolest bloke in the world.”
Hastings and Ponga will link up in the halves for the first time next weekend in the Knights’ trial match against Parramatta in what they and the club hope is the start of a new era for both players.
For Hastings, he’s on the look for a forever home and a permanent spot at halfback in the NRL after previous stints with the Roosters, Sea Eagles and Tigers, as well as some time in Super League.
For Ponga, he’ll be trying to make the move from fullback to five-eighth and the success or failure of the Knights in 2023 may well rest on how well he makes that transition.
Both men need the other to succeed, so getting off the right foot was vital.
“The first day I walked into the sheds at training he came in with a bright pink singlet on, hat backwards, I was just trying to drink my coffee and he gave me this big hug like we’d known each other for years,” said Hastings.
“When you look at his social media he seems like the coolest bloke in the world. When you meet him he actually is the coolest bloke in the world, but he’s got the work ethic to match.
“He doesn’t rest on his laurels. I know a lot of people will have an opinion, a lot of people see the TikToks and with all due respect people will have an opinion on that, but his work ethic at training is second to none.
“He wins every fitness drill, he’s the first one at training, he’s diligent with his meetings and he talks when he needs to. His leadership has really shone this pre-season, I’ve been really impressed.”
On paper, the Hastings-Ponga combination seems a strong fit.
After suffering from a lack of direction last year, Hastings fits the bill as the on-field general Newcastle have needed since Mitchell Pearce’s departure.
He averaged 76 touches of the ball per game for the Tigers last season, the most average possessions of any non-hooker in the competition.
The Great Britain international looked sharp in a short cameo in the club’s trial match against Cronulla on Friday night, playing both sides of the field and helping create a try with a sharp short pass to Lachlan Fitzgibbon.
His hands-on approach to playmaking should free up Ponga to focus on his greatest strengths – running the ball and creating opportunities for his outside men.
Ponga’s languid, casual style has led to criticisms of his desire to excel but Hastings believes this perception is far from the truth.
“I know he gives off that persona that he’s too cool for school and he’s just relaxed but he loves the game,” said Hastings.
“He just has such a raw, natural talent that you just have to put him in positions to watch him go to work.
“I remember my first session fully back with the squad after about four or five weeks in Newcastle. We spoke about this play we wanted to run, I passed him the ball, he did his old in-and-away, dummy and just ran through and I thought ‘this is gonna be alright if it works’.
“Hopefully, we can build on that next week, it’s looked really good but training’s training.”
Ponga has attempted a switch to the halves before, in the early stages of 2019.
Back then, the move was abandoned after just two-and-a-half-matches and he’s stayed at fullback ever since.
But after shrugging off a calf injury he suffered in the pre-season, the match against the Eels marks the beginning of a new stage of his career and it seems as though the move is in for the long haul this time.
“His body of work speaks for itself. You sort of get more of an appreciation of what he can do when you get to train with him,” Hastings said.
“He makes everything look so easy, there’s an effortlessness to him, he just glides.
“There was a bit of a setback with injury, it wasn’t as bad as people were saying, they were all kind of jumping up and down. But he’s fine, he’ll be in there next week and I can’t wait to play with him.”