When Newcastle made Kalyn Ponga one of the richest teens in Australian sport, they did so in the belief he would become the best player in the game.
But not even the Knights could have envisaged it would happen this quickly.
In his first full season in the Hunter, Ponga has justified his price tag and all the hype after becoming the youngest player to be crowned The Players’ Champion.
The 20-year-old received the ultimate recognition from his peers at the Rugby League Players’ Association’s annual awards night on Tuesday at Doltone House.
Ponga edged out a star-studded group of finalists that included Rabbitohs’ rake Damien Cook, Warriors skipper Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Sharks’ flyer Valentine Holmes and Storm playmaker Cameron Munster.
Ponga was anointed season’s best player based on a revamped voting system that canvassed the views of more RLPA members than ever before. He was presented the trophy by four-time winner Johnathan Thurston, who has maintained it is “the highest individual accolade a player can receive.”
RLPA CEO Ian Prendergast congratulated Ponga on a stellar 2018 season, which included 20 appearances for the Newcastle Knights and a State of Origin debut for Queensland.
“It’s incredible that at such a young age, Kalyn has already gained the recognition from his fellow players as the best performer in 2018,” Prendergast said.
“Despite the Knights not making it through to the finals this season, Kalyn continued to put in
dominant performances throughout in his first-year at the club.
“The RLPA membership have had their say and for a 20-year-old to be voted the best by his peers, it just shows what a prestigious talent the Newcastle custodian is.
“We have witnessed somewhat of a changing of the guard in 2018, with the emergence of young stars with plenty of character and a number of the game’s longest servants retiring.”
St George Illawarra star Jason Nightingale received The Dennis Tutty Award for 2018,
recognising his contribution in the wellbeing and education space, his efforts as founder
of the Elite Athlete Business School and engagement as an RLPA delegate.
Tutty, a former Balmain, Penrith and Australian player, was on hand to present Nightingale with the
honour that each year recognises an individual who has acted in a selfless way in advancing the interests of their fellow players.
Australian Jillaroos star Roosters captain, Simaima Taufa, was recognised as the women’s player of the year for her strong World Cup campaign. North Queensland powerhouse Jason Taumalolo continued the rise of Tonga in the International arena, edging out finalists from Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea to be named representative player of the Year.
In a boost for the Roosters, Victor Radley beat Jamayne Isaako, Alex Brimson, Rhyse Martin and Jesse Ramien for rookie of the year.
The Players' 13 Dream Team: Kalyn Ponga (Newcastle Knights), Valentine Holmes (Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks), Latrell Mitchell (Sydney Roosters), Esan Marsters (Wests Tigers), Jamayne Isaako (Brisbane Broncos), Cameron Munster (Melbourne Storm), Johnathan Thurston (North Queensland Cowboys), Andrew Fifita (Cronulla- Sutherland Sharks), Damien Cook (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Nelson Asofa-Solomona (Melbourne Storm), Viliame Kikau (Penrith Panthers), Tariq Sims (St George Illawarra Dragons), Jake Trbojevic (Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles).