For Newcastle Knights superstar Kalyn Ponga, any chance to return to New Zealand is “always special”.
Ponga was born in Australia to New Zealand parents and is of Māori descent by way of his father’s ancestry. He also lived in New Zealand for five years from the age of eight.
The Knights fullback might enjoy being back in New Zealand, however, what would be even more special would be a win for Newcastle in their semi-final against the Warriors on Saturday in Auckland.
“It’s always special coming back here,” Ponga told 7NEWS rugby league reporter Michelle Bishop on arrival at Auckland airport.
“I’ve got family (here), my mum and dad are coming over, my girlfriend.
“It’s always special.”
The Knights are riding high on the back of an incredible 10-game winning streak and enjoyed an elimination-final win last week against the Raiders in front of their adoring Newcastle fans.
This week, however, Ponga knows it will be different in enemy territory.
“Every game has been pretty big for us, it’s been do or die for about nine weeks,” Ponga said.
“We know the occasion, last week was big for the (Newcastle) town and we don’t have the town behind us this week and it’s just us over here.
“We are excited by the challenge.”
Knights five-eighth Tyson Gamble agreed.
“It was a long trip, but good and we are ready for Saturday,” Gamble said at Auckland airport.
“Coming over here is never an easy challenge. We have to be on our toes and ready.
“It’s kind of flipped the script on us from last week. It’s going to be a bit more hostile, but it’s something we’ve spoken about and something we are ready for.”
Warriors halfback and Dally M favourite Shaun Johnson remains under an injury cloud with a calf injury, with the Warriors struggling without him in attack during last week’s qualifying-final loss to the Panthers.
Ponga said Johnson has been one of the best players during the season as well as an important player for the Warriors, but the Knights must not underestimate the hosts if he is ruled out.
“(If he is ruled out) He will be a massive loss for them,” Ponga said.
“I think coming into this game, he has been one of the best players on the field (during the season).
“He is the reason why people show up, and he deserves to be out there playing.
“We can’t underestimate the rest of them as well.”
Gamble refused to be drawn on speculation that Johnson will miss the semi-final and said the Knights have been preparing as if he would take the field.
“I haven’t really looked at it much, to be honest,” Gamble said.
“But if he is not playing, then it’s a good thing for us.
“They said he would be back for this game, so we prepared like he is going to be playing.”
Gamble said the Knights must improve following last week’s narrow win against Canberra.
“We were a bit off our game entirely last week, so we need to focus back on what we do well,” Gamble said.
“Hopefully, it’s a lot better performance than what we tossed up last week.”
Ponga agreed and said the Knights “struggled” against the Raiders.
“As a collective, we struggled. I don’t think we ended sets the way we should have and that put our forwards under pressure,” Ponga said.
“There is no doubting they (the Warriors) have an awesome pack, and we have to control them.”
Newcastle forward Daniel Saifiti said the pressure of a home final affected the performance of the Knights last week.
“I think it (the pressure) probably affected us a little bit last week — the build-up of the week, first finals series, being at home,” Saifiti explained.
“We sort of got punched in the face early by Canberra, so it was a good lesson for us.
“I don’t think we would have played any worse (all season) that we did in that first half, and we still won, so it was a good lesson for us.”
The Warriors will start as favourites against the Knights, with the winner to face the Broncos in a preliminary-final next week in Brisbane.