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NRL Real or Not: The Knights would be better off without Ponga

After months of speculation around his NRL playing future, Newcastle superstar Kalyn Ponga has snubbed the Dolphins and signed a bumper new five-year deal with the Knights. But is he really worth the money?

Plus Brisbane's ongoing spine problems, is David Fifita a freak or a flop, and is Trent Barrett capable of turning the Bulldogs around?

We tackle some of the big talking points in the latest edition of NRL Real or Not.


Newcastle would've been better off letting Kalyn Ponga leave

Not real: There are two ways to look at Ponga's new bumper five-year deal, announced on Wednesday. One is simple - Kalyn Ponga is "not worth $1 million a season", is yet to win anything with the Knights, and the club could afford to buy two decent players with the money they'd save if they let their superstar walk.

He's that frustrating combination of freakishly talented and inconsistent -- an easy player for TV commentators to praise when he produces a moment of brilliance but also an obvious target when he seemingly goes missing.

The opposite argument is that Ponga remains the club's best player (and arguably their most naturally talented since Andrew Johns), and there's no better alternative they'd be able to spend that salary cap space on if they allowed Ponga to leave for The Dolphins or another club.

Is Ponga likely to lead the Knights to their first premiership since 2001? Probably not. Are they a better chance of winning a premiership with Ponga in their team than without him? Absolutely.

Many Knights fans would've been happy for Ponga to chase a big deal elsewhere, just as Warriors fans were happy to see their club refuse a big contract for their high-profile star Shaun Johnson in 2018. In the Warriors' case Johnson was replaced by a lesser player in Kodi Nikorima and the club languished in the bottom half of the ladder for three seasons before signing Johnson again this year.

On the weekend, with rumours swirling about his playing future and one inaccurate news story doing the rounds that the Knights had actually withdrawn their offer, Ponga produced his best performance of the season with a try, a try assist, 10 tackle breaks, seven offloads and 240 metres against the Dragons. Newcastle lost the game anyway.

The Knights have on-field problems, but they stem more from their depth being seriously tested than the output of their stand-in captain. Nine players were unavailable for Sunday's loss, with halfback Adam Clune, back-rowers Mitchell Barnett and Lachlan Fitzgibbon, winger Dominic Young and hooker Jayden Brailey the key absences. Brailey is unlikely to be back for some time, so it's up to the rest of the squad to step up in the meantime.

If they ever get back to full strength, building around Ponga remains their best hope of becoming a premiership contender again.

- Dominic Brock

The Broncos need to find a spine and stick with it

Real: The most important four positions in a footy team are the playmaking spine -- fullback, five-eighth, halfback and hooker. The best teams tend to have strong players in all four roles, the worst tend to have young players or journeymen filling those positions.

The Broncos still don't know what their spine is. This week they have named their fourth spine combination of the season, and it's only round seven. They've selected three fullbacks, three five-eighths, two halfbacks and two starting hookers across those seven rounds, partly due to injury but also partly due to selections.

Going into round one, Jamayne Isaako was the team's fullback and Tyson Gamble was the third-choice five-eighth behind Albert Kelly and Billy Walters. Now Gamble is wearing the No.6 and Isaako is no longer at the club.

The Broncos haven't played finals football since 2019. In that season they had a fairly settled spine with captain Darius Boyd (25 games), Anthony Milford (24), Andrew McCullough (20) and Jake Turpin (14) taking the playmaking roles for the bulk of the season. Kodi Nikorima also played seven games at halfback.

By staying patient with playmakers you not only give them a chance to find their feet (see Lachlan Ilias's steady improvement at the Rabbitohs this season) but you also help build combinations across the team.

New halfback Adam Reynolds is arguably the highest-profile recruit in the league this year but he's also unfortunately the only player in the spine who is guaranteed to hold his spot for long, and that's a problem that will affect Brisbane's fortunes until Kevin Walters can settle on his preferred combination.

- Dominic Brock

David Fifita is an overpaid flop

Not real: You can see why the Gold Coast's million-dollar man David Fifita cops criticism whenever the Titans lose games. He's on big money, he's huge, he's strong, and he's capable of doing things that few -- if any -- other players in the league can do. If he can score freakish tries on his own, the thinking goes, why doesn't he just do it all the time?

But that's holding Fifita to a standard that nobody can reach. Criticising him for failing to take the tough hit-ups out of his own end is missing the point as well. That's not what he's paid for.

So what is he paid for? The highlight plays. A couple of weeks ago he scored a try that nobody else was probably capable of since Greg Inglis at his peak, a dummy-half dart that turned into a bulldozing run towards the tryline from 40 metres out.

Against Manly last weekend he helped spark a fightback with two big plays - first a bullocking run and offload for Jamayne Isaako's try, then a typically stunning solo effort in the right corner. Fifita's not going to become the world's best player any time soon, but whenever he can produce plays like these he's going to give his team a chance.

- Dominic Brock

Barrett is not the coach the Bulldogs were led to believe

Real: Patience is a virtue which is wearing incredibly thin for those fans donning blue and white and waiting for their once-great club to rise again. Trent Barrett was signed with the promise of bringing Panther-like attacking prowess to Belmore. Six games into his second season in charge of the Bulldogs, and there has been very little evidence of the required transformation.

In his first season at the club, he carried the common excuse of having to deal with the previous coach's squad and the associated inadequacies that triggered his signing. A couple of players were added for his first year and some big contracts were signed, with the cavalry set to arrive for the 2022 season. Still, the club finished 2021 with the embarrassment of the wooden spoon, something previous coach Dean Pay, struggling with a similar playing group, had managed to avoid.

Now, despite having several well-paid players in position, the club languishes in last place with just one narrow victory over the Cowboys to their credit. The only visible similarity between the Bulldogs and the way the Panthers play has been Barrett's highly questionable insistence that Josh Jackson can assume the ball-playing lock role so brilliantly executed by Penrith captain Isaah Yeo. All the available evidence points to the fact that Jackson, as good a player as he may be, is clearly no Yeo.

The rest of the Bulldogs attack struggles from the moment hooker Jeremy Marshall-King takes an eternity to pick up the ball, shuffle a step and deliver his flat uninspired passes, almost exclusively to forwards. The halves never receive the ball with the defence on the retreat, the backs never deep enough, with enough space to apply any deception or flanking moves. Josh Addo-Carr might as well run the flag on his touchline.

Fans aren't expecting a premiership -- a finals appearance would be fantastic. What they want most of all is a sign, some form of physical evidence that Barrett has improved the team in any way, shape or form. When Reed Mahoney and Viliame Kikau arrive next year, will they be the pieces missing from the Bulldogs puzzle? Will Barrett then finally show his so far mythical coaching ability? I'm not so sure.

- Darren Arthur