Cronulla Sharks plan feeding frenzy on young Newcastle Knights star Kalyn Ponga

Marked man: Cronulla will hoping to do as good a job on Kalyn Ponga as they did in their trial against the Knights at Maitland a fortnight ago. Picture: Marina Neil
Marked man: Cronulla will hoping to do as good a job on Kalyn Ponga as they did in their trial against the Knights at Maitland a fortnight ago. Picture: Marina Neil

Chad Townsend says Cronulla's forward will try to "run over the top" of Kalyn Ponga in their season opener against the Knights in Newcastle tomorrow night.

Cronulla will be the first NRL team to test Ponga's defence in the front line since his shift from fullback to five-eighth.

And the Sharks aren't hiding anything - they are planning a feeding frenzy on the young star.

With Luke Lewis retired, the Sharks will likely line up debutant back-rower Briton Nikora against Ponga on Cronulla's right edge.

There is not much difference in size between Ponga and Nikora. According to their official NRL profiles, Nikora is just two kilograms heavier at 94kg and one centimetre taller.

But how Ponga handles the added physical burden of defending in the front line, should he be forced to make upwards of 20 tackles, could help Cronulla stifle the 20-year-old's electrifying attack.

"The kid is a freak. Everyone knows that," Townsend said. 

"Now he is one of the most marked men in the NRL. He has earned that with some of his performances during the year. We will be prepared for him and what he is capable of.

"We want to send traffic at him. Defending in the line is something he isn’t too used to. I saw him play 60 minutes at Origin in the middle. I know he is a tough kid. We will be doing our best to try and target him in that area.

"Being a half you get targeted. You’re one of the smallest blokes on the field. All I try and do is put my body on the line and get in front. Try and make a good tackle. I used to have Luke Lewis there to cover my backside.

"We will target him in that area. He has plenty of toughness. Whenever [our forwards] can see him, get your bumper bars up and try and run over the top of him."

John Morris, who will make his own NRL debut as a head coach in charge of the Sharks, said while the Sharks would be more concerned about their overall attack Ponga would have "nowhere to hide". 

"Anyone in the defensive line has to make their tackles. Kalyn's a very willing defender. He showed in State of Origin what he can do. He's not going to shy away from it," he said. 

"I don't think we need to be chasing Kalyn. We need to be worried about doing what we do well in our own offence. 

"But like any half, like Chad Townsend and Shaun Johnson [for us], they're going to make some tackles. It's the NRL. There's nowhere to hide."

Kurt Capewell lined up against Mitchell Pearce on Cronulla's left in the Sharks' heavy trial win over Newcastle a fortnight ago.

But with the ability to also play on the right, the Sharks back-rower said he planned to make Ponga do as much defensive work as possible if he is chosen to line up opposite. 

"We want to try and take away from his attacking game. The more work he can do in defence hopefully the less energy he has in attack," Capewell said.

"Kalyn is a good defender. It’s just making them make tackles. He can make tackles. The little guys aren’t scared, they enjoy the challenge. It takes energy out of them. Hopefully that can tame down his attacking game."

Cronulla will try and break a losing streak of five consecutive season openers against the Knights, having not won first up since the 2013 campaign.

The Sharks though have an excellent recent record against Newcastle, winning their last eight matches in a row against the Knights at an aggregate score of 281 to 96, or an average of 35 to 12.

"It's one of the big things we’ve spoken about. The last five years we haven't won in round one. It's a big thing for us to tick off," Townsend said.

"John spoke about it, not being complacent after the [trial] game. [Morris] and [Paul Gallen] were vocal saying because it happened then doesn’t mean it will happen in round one.

"I can’t put [our good record against the Knights] down to anything. We’ve had some decent scores in the last few years.

"[But] this is a new game. They have a new team. They are heading in the better direction, [they've made] a lot of new signings. We are expecting a tough game."

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