North Queensland Cowboys training at 1300Smiles Stadium. Gavin Cooper. Picture: Alix Sweeney
North Queensland Cowboys training at 1300Smiles Stadium. Gavin Cooper. Picture: Alix Sweeney

Cowboys ready for Ponga showdown

HE'S the superstar that got away who threatens to rub more salt into their 2018 wounds.

But the Cowboys have welcomed the return of former teammate Kalyn Ponga from injury for Friday's home clash with Newcastle, adamant they can use inside knowledge to shut down the electric fullback.

The Cowboys fought hard to retain Ponga, but the 20-year-old opted to accept a rich deal from the Knights at the end of last season.

His exit has been exacerbated by Lachlan Coote's demotion to Queensland Cup, and the off-contract Cowboys fullback looks long odds of being re-signed.

Ponga will return this week after three weeks out with a hamstring injury. He rolled his ankle at Knights training yesterday, but later returned and is expected to play.

But asked if they'd prefer he take another game off, Cowboys winger Kyle Feldt cracked: "I don't know, it would be good to get him up here and give him a taste of his own medicine about leaving here.

"I'm looking forward to it. He's a good kid, on and off the field. We just have to do a number on him when he gets the ball.

Everyone knows how good Kalyn is, he's proved it in his first full year in the NRL and did a really good job in Origin (on debut in game two)

"He was here for a while, we've got a few things we can try and exploit. If they work they work, if they don't, they don't."

Retiring Cowboys champion Johnathan Thurston was particularly shattered when Ponga opted to leave, and he has more than justified why.

Cowboys back rower Gavin Cooper was a teammate of Ponga in Maroons camp and was impressed by his bravery when thrust into the back row off the bench.

"It was pretty courageous, he was throwing his head in places that not many people like to do," Cooper said.

"Playing Origin has given him a boost, getting to play with him in that arena I saw what it did for his confidence.

"We were speaking in camp about him coming back up here, and hopefully I get a chance to get a hold of him.

"A lot of guys questioned the move (to Newcastle), but he's found another gear and we knew that was possible with him."

The second-last Cowboys are now only ahead of bottom team Parramatta on for and against, and they are desperate to avoid the wooden spoon in Thurston's final season.

They have lost five straight games and are on a five-match losing run at home after last week's 24-10 defeat to the Dragons.

Cooper admitted he didn't see the situation coming after the Cowboys powered through to last year's grand final.

"It's a crazy one the way this year's gone. Us inside thinking about what we needed to do to get to where we want to go, and then to see the ladder now is not very kind," Cooper said.

"It doesn't sit well with me, or anyone at the club at all. To go out on the year on a bit of a high (is the aim),

"There's six weeks to go to try and build some confidence for next year, and to even send the guys out who might be leaving on a positive (note)."