In the prime of my career I was approached by rugby union to switch codes, like Kalyn Ponga is experiencing. I had a decision to weigh up, so I reminded myself why I played rugby league, writes Darren Lockyer.
I really hope Kalyn Ponga stays in rugby league.
There’s no doubt he’s a special talent and watching his performance in Origin I, I can understand why Rugby Australia and Wallabies coach Michael Cheika would be interested in signing Ponga for future World Cup campaigns.
After all, Ponga played First XV rugby at Churchie where, at 15, he was a schoolboy sensation who even attracted interest from the AFL.
But the historical records of NRL stars who dabbled in rugby, coupled with my own personal journey in professional sport, suggests to me that Ponga is best suited in the NRL.
If you look at past experiences, Wendell Sailor, Mat Rogers and Lote Tuqiri all had great moments in rugby after their defections from the NRL, but it is fascinating to note that the Wallabies trio all returned to finish their careers in rugby league.
I know Ponga has some background in rugby, but the NRL is where he really started his journey as an elite sportsman and it’s the best code for him long-term.
When Rogers and Sailor went to the 15-a-side game, I was also approached by the ARU. They were doing a big recruitment drive before the World Cup in Australia in 2003, but my heart was always with rugby league.
It’s a two-fold strategy I guess for rugby union. Naturally, they would want to build a team for them to challenge the All Blacks but they would also want to bring some profile to their sport by poaching one of the NRL’s hottest talents.
When I had a decision to weigh up, I just reminded myself why I played rugby league.
As a kid, all I dreamt about was playing for the Broncos, Queensland and Australia in rugby league, so why would I walk away from all of that?
Sometimes when you are in that position and have achieved those goals, you can take your lofty spot for granted. But you need to take yourself back to when you were 15 years old and what it would have meant to one day aspire to those goals.
Ponga still has so much to achieve in rugby league to leave the NRL at such a young age.
When Israel Folau quit the NRL to play AFL, I guess the money was too good to refuse in his eyes, but sometimes chasing the dollars can erode your legacy. Folau had the potential to go down as one of the greats of rugby league and Ponga is in the same boat now.
I’ve always been a firm believer that loyalty will pay dividends in other ways.
With Folau having been lost to rugby union over his social-media drama, rugby is looking to replace a void he has left and Ponga ticks that box.
Ponga probably wouldn’t go unless he was to become the highest-paid player in Australian rugby.
It’s a big decision for the Ponga family, but if he stays loyal to the NRL, long-term it will pay off in spades for him.
The million-dollar question is whether the NRL should step in to help keep Ponga? My view is no.
The NRL would be setting a dangerous precedent if they chipped in with some additional funds because other stars will come along and rival NRL clubs will start agitating for help from the governing body to keep their best players.
Ponga will pick up a stack of endorsements in our game as well, so financially the decision would be marginal in my eyes. Ultimately, he needs to decide what would make him happy and which sport can offer him the best opportunities.
Even though the games are similar, unless you have been brought up in the game your whole life, there will be an adjustment and that could take a couple of years to understand the intrinsic rules of rugby union.
It will be interesting to see how Ponga backs up for Origin II on Sunday week in Western Australia, the state in which he was born.
Some diehard fans may criticise the NRL for taking State of Origin to Perth but the reality is sport is evolving.
It has become as much about entertainment as business and the NRL should be applauded for taking our showpiece product to new markets. We have millions of fans in our traditional markets but if we can recruit some casual followers to our game, that can only be a positive for the NRL.
Origin will be going to Adelaide next year so it’s important for our code not to stand still and let other sports go past us with smarter commercial moves.
The beauty of the NRL is that we basically have four grand finals a year compared to other sports.
It’s important to reward the heart and soul of the code in NSW and Queensland, but the NRL has to find ways to grow and State of Origin is the perfect promotional vehicle in which to do so.