Cronulla’s push for a top four finish has been given a significant boost with Newcastle’s dangerous young gun Kalyn Ponga ruled out of Sunday’s clash with the Sharks.
Ponga will miss the match with an ongoing ankle injury. It could be the end of the 20-year-old’s season with just two regular season matches remaining and the Knights well out of finals contention.
Meanwhile, Cronulla will welcome back Jayden Brailey (ear) and Edrick Lee (shoulder) with Wade Graham also a chance of returning from a knee injury.
The Sharks will be without Newcastle-bound centre Jesse Ramien (ankle) and Ricky Leutele (knee) after the pair suffered injuries in Cronulla's win over North Queensland.
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Cronulla plan to target young star Kalyn Ponga again on Sunday, aiming for a repeat of the physical barrage the Sharks dished out when they thrashed Newcastle earlier this season.
The Sharks host Newcastle needing to win to keep their top four hopes alive but are wary of the resurgent Knights who upset fellow top four chasers Penrith last weekend.
The key for Cronulla will be to stop Ponga who at just 20-years-old has taken the NRL by storm this year, making his State of Origin debut for Queensland and proving himself as one of the NRL’s elite stars of the future.
The Sharks made a point of targeting Ponga during their 48-10 drubbing of the Knights when the sides met in Newcastle in round 12.
Luke Lewis and Wade Graham were charged for separate tackles on Ponga. Lewis pleaded guilty to a dangerous-contact charge after a late, high shot – which saw Ponga removed from the field for a head-injury assessment only to return – but escaped suspension.
Graham was exonerated at the judiciary after successfully contesting an alleged “crusher tackle” he made on Ponga.
Cronulla’s roughing up of Ponga prompted Newcastle legend Tony Butterfield to call on Ponga’s Knights’ teammates to “exact some retribution. Next time, maybe.”
But Sharks halfback Chad Townsend said Cronulla would not alter their physical approach which was so successful in May.
“You have to show him that we’re basically coming for you,” he said.
“We know you’re a threat, we think you’re a really good player but we have to try and do our best to nullify your game. We’re trying to win the game so we have to stop their best player which is probably him.”
Whether Cronulla’s barrage works again remains to be seen. Ponga proved his toughness for the Maroons as he played 52 minutes in the middle of the field in Origin II, making almost 30 tackles as NSW secured the series in Sydney.
But Townsend said Ponga was undoubtedly Newcastle’s biggest threat as Cronulla look for an eighth win in a row against the Novocastrians.
“He’s a freak, to be honest. He’s shown he can play numerous positions. Not only fullback. He’s played 70 minutes at lock in Origin. Like, who does that?” Townsend said.
“Last week he played in the halves I’m told so if he does that again I’ll be sending Luke Lewis at him as much as I can to make him make 30 tackles to make him a bit tired.
“And that’s what you’ve got to do, you’ve got to nullify his speed and his skill. We did a good job on him the first time we played them, we had a bit of a plan around him so I’m sure our staff will come up with something we can try and nullify his game.
“But he’s a freak, he can handle anything.”
Townsend is also looking forward to his personal battle with opposite number Mitchell Pearce.
The former NSW No.7 has returned from a 10-week absence with a torn pectoral, with the Knights enjoying a winning 7-6 record in games Pearce has played this season.
“He’s probably one of the elite halfbacks of the competition on his day,” Townsend said.
“I always enjoy coming up against the game’s best.
“His ball playing is one of the best. When he gets his team on the park and he’s got all his weapons around him he’s really hard to stop.”