Kalyn Ponga deal is done but NRL must fix absurd player transfer issues

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<span>Photograph: Darren Pateman/AAP</span>
Photograph: Darren Pateman/AAP

Our long and entirely unnecessary national nightmare is over. Kalyn Ponga has extended his deal with the Knights. After a seemingly never-ending drama full of plot twists and secret meetings, press conference storm-outs and outright lies, contract clauses and unaccredited advisors, the star fullback has inked to stay in the Hunter until the end of the 2027 season.

This protracted soap opera has finally reached a conclusion nearly all expected, that conclusion being that a club that has struggled to attract big-name stars is willing to do anything to appease their big-name star to keep him.

The Knights beat out the Dolphins for Ponga’s signature as the latest addition to the league missed out on yet another target. While winners and losers out of contracts are rarely decided in the immediate aftermath, the Dolphins have come out of this both disappointed and red-faced.

The NRL’s newest outfit have yet to land a marquee player despite publicly setting their sites on plenty of key playmakers. Ponga was the closest the Dolphins came. The 24-year-old met secretly with Wayne Bennett, who himself was signed as the new franchise’s coach, to lure the big names. It certainly hasn’t worked to date.

Newcastle are certainly pleased with themselves, thrilled they have managed to keep their gun custodian. The red flags this whole saga has thrown up though should suggest any public declaration of unmitigated success should be tempered.

The story out of Redcliffe, if it is to be believed, is that Ponga did not respond well to a challenge from Wayne Bennett to become an even better player, apparently expecting to be lauded and enticed rather than have a grim picture painted for him.

The inclusion of a clause that allowed him to look at outside deals while still under contract was foolish from the Knights to include but it says plenty. Ponga may have signed a long-term big-money deal with Newcastle but his heart seems a long way from the place.

Ponga was incredibly close to walking. He would have if the conditions were right. This was not some light flirting to get a little extra out of his club. This was boxes packed, removalist van booked, note for the family on the kitchen table.

The influence Ponga’s father Andre has had over the latest contract negotiation and also over the Knights has proven problematic. Andre now works with the Knights’ NRLW team as the club continues to try and appease a father firmly attached to his son’s business.

While Andre Ponga is the central figure in negotiating Kalyn’s contract, he is not an accredited agency. Yet NRL HQ have allowed this to go on in every one of Ponga’s negotiations including this one. Threats that the silky-skilled playmaker may defect to AFL or rugby union seemingly has the NRL willing to overlook some of its key principles and rules.

The NRL has not attracted a lot of scrutiny over their role in this tiresome and unsavoury display. But they should be scrutinised. It has been the NRL’s inaction when it comes to the framework around player movement that has allowed this.

There is no quick solution to the player transfer framework but it is quite apparent the NRL has put it in the ‘too hard’ basket and is more than happy to let embarrassments like this continue. It is hard to forget Villiame Kikau wearing a 2023 Bulldogs jersey before spending the 2021-22 seasons with Penrith.

The NRL is seemingly the only major sport in the world where players can sign with a club and publicly announce it, yet continue to play for their previous club for an extended period. That is utterly absurd. James Harden didn’t finish out the season with the Nets after he was traded to the 76ers. Aaron Rodgers was not allowed to discuss future deals while he was still playing for the Packers.

It was often couched as a binary issue. We would have players negotiate in secret with an announcement after June 30 allowed. Or we could have the system where honesty and transparency are prized above all else including loyalty and reputation. The argument for the June 30 deadline is that it allows players time to organise any potential moves. But this is 2022 and the NRL is a professional sport. That should play no role.

The NRL has never had a transfer window and has few provisions for clubs to trade players. Little effort is made to constrain clubs. Player management accreditation is seemingly optional if you control the affairs of a family member.

There is no silver bullet but the NRL needs to show some leadership. Players cannot be allowed to announce moves well into the future, particularly with different clubs. Clubs cannot crow about future signings either. A transfer window needs to be installed and supported by heavy penalties for tampering and a system that more readily facilitates trading players.

The Ponga deal is done and dusted. At least for now. But the NRL needs to heed some very important lessons.

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