A desire to stop “letting people down” fuelled one of the most remarkable comebacks on and off the field as Newcastle captain Kalyn Ponga stormed to his first Dally M Medal win.
The 25-year-old becomes the first Knights player to win the top gong since Danny Buderus in 2004 as he carried his team into the top eight when it looked like their coach would be sacked midway through the season.
Ponga was destined to claim this award eventually, but he was given no chance of winning the Dally M halfway through the season having only polled six votes in the opening 12 rounds due to form and an injury that threatened to end his career.
A lot was made of his unsuccessful move to five-eighth, with the experiment finally ending after a loss to Cronulla in Round 12, but that was a subplot to the genuine fears that repeated head knocks would force him to retire early.
Ponga was concussed for the fourth time in 10 months when he was knocked out making a tackle in the opening minutes of their Round 2 game, with the injury so concerning that he went to Canada to meet with neurological experts.
He missed five matches but was cleared of any serious damage, with Ponga shifting to fullback and setting up 14 tries in a crazy eight-game stretch as the Knights entered the finals as the hottest team in the league.
“It’s a pretty crazy feeling standing up here in front of so much talent,” Ponga said.
“I had an early season holiday and while I was over there, I decided that I wanted to stop letting people down and start making people proud and I think I came back and did that. What a year.
“To the boys playing this weekend, I’m envious of you and all the best.”
Ponga and Johnson didn’t play in Round 27, with the Knights skipper polling enough votes to leapfrog the veteran halfback to hit the lead for the first time when it mattered most.
He finished on 56 votes, one ahead of Warriors star Shaun Johnson who finished a further point clear of last year’s winner, Nicho Hynes.
There was some small consolation for Johnson who was one of three Warriors players to make the team of the year, while rookie Andrew Webster claimed coach of the year honours.
Ponga’s Dally M success capped an incredible evening for the Knights with NRLW fullback Tamika Upton claiming the top gong in the women’s game by one vote in another thrilling finish to the count.
Upton (27 votes) pipped Roosters five-eighth Tarryn Aiken by a single point, with Raiders lock Simaima Taufa and Broncos skipper Ali Brigginshaw tied for third on 22.
It’s a thoroughly deserved award for Upton who scored five tries this season and is a key reason why the Knights lost just one game and are now one win away from back-to-back titles.
“This is definitely not an individual award,” Upton said.
“From the moment I stepped foot there I’ve felt supported from the staff and everyone involved and that spreads to my teammates. I’m pretty lucky to be surrounded by the most amazing players and people.
“My family, I know they‘re supporting me back home and it’s pretty tough living away but I need to send a shout out to the Southwell family because having a home away from home is pretty special.”
Upton was one of two Newcastle players in the NRLW team of the year, with the Broncos providing four players while the Roosters had three of their stars picked.