THE immediate and long-term playing future of Knights skipper Kalyn Ponga is under a cloud after he suffered his fifth head knock of the season during Friday night's 42-12 thrashing by Sydney Roosters.
Ponga was clipped high in a reflex tackle by Roosters prop Matthew Lodge in the eighth minute of the round-19 clash at McDonald Jones Stadium and immediately fell backwards, banging his head on the turf.
The Queensland Origin fullback failed his head-injury assessment and was unable to take any further part in the match, while Lodge was subsequently charged with a grade-one careless high tackle and is facing an $1800 fine.
It is the fifth time Ponga has required a HIA inside the past five months, and his third in the space of six weeks.
He has been through the same process more than 10 times over the past four seasons, but on only one of those occasions has he not backed up to play in Newcastle's following game.
That was after Origin II last month, when he was ordered to sit out Newcastle's subsequent clash with Gold Coast Titans, under a mandatory NRL stand-down policy.
His latest setback, however, has sparked a flurry of calls for the 24-year-old to be given time out.
Knights legend Andrew Johns, who works as a consultant on Newcastle's coaching staff, told Channel Nine's Sunday Footy Show that Ponga should be given the rest of the season off.
"I don't think Kalyn will play again this year," Johns said.
"It's his third head knock this year, in the last couple of months ... they're not going to make the semis, so why would you risk a player like Kalyn?
Johns added: "I think that's it for the year. Just let him have some time off, because he's too important to the team."
Johns described the Lodge hit as "a fairly light touch", but fellow panellists Bill Slater and Bad Fittler disagreed.
Slater said Lodge "got him right on the button", while Fittler added: "I don't think that was that innocuous."
Asked if there was any concern about Ponga's long-term future, Slater replied: "Well this is all very new, but of course you've got to worry about that ... I'm sure the Knights have his best interests at heart.
"He's there long term, and they want to make sure that they've got him for the long term. I don't think he'll play again this year, either."
Ponga will consult with leading neurologist Professor Chris Levi this week to discuss a course of action.
If he was ruled out for the rest of the season, it would cruel his chances of winning his first green-and-gold jersey, as part of Mal Meninga's World Cup squad.
Ponga's first HIA of the season was against Manly on April 7, followed by another 17 days later against Parramatta. In both instances, he was cleared to return to the field.
On June 12, he was knocked senseless in a sickening collision as he tried to stop a try by giant Penrith back-rower Viliame Kikau, ending his game after only 15 minutes.
He played for Newcastle against Canberra a week later but then was dazed in a Nathan Cleary tackle during Origin II on June 26.
Knights coach Adam O'Brien said Ponga was "upset" when his teammates returned to the dressing room on Friday night.
"He wants to come back and play well at the club, especially after Origin, but we'll go through the process during the week," O'Brien said.
"He's had a couple [of concussions] but I'm more concerned about how upset he is at the moment.
"He's pretty emotional and he feels like he's let everyone down, but at the end of the day, he's copped a whack to the head - and he's had a couple - so we need to go and get it all looked at."
O'Brien did not want to speculate on what might transpire next.
"He'll obviously go and see Chris Levi during the week and we'll go from there," he said.
"But I think it's probably too premature for me to comment on too much when I'm not really skilled in it all, so we'll just send him to the people that know a lot more than me."
Roosters coach Trent Robinson said he expected the tackle to be scrutinised "because it's Matt Lodge on Kalyn Ponga", but felt there was not a lot in it.
"I felt really sorry for Kalyn, because it's happened a couple of times ... and it was really tough for Newcastle," Robinson said. "As soon as Kalyn went off, you sort of knew that they were going to struggle."
Former Knights winger James McManus, who unsuccessfully sued the club after a series of concussions ended his career in 2015, told the Sun-Herald his advice to Ponga would be that "football is a very small section of your life".
McManus said the advice he had received during his own treatment suggested that some people are more susceptible to concussions.
"If I was to be looking at five [incidents] in a year, you'd be thinking about susceptibility. I know that was an issue for me," McManus said.
Ponga's former housemate Connor Watson, who was playing for the Roosters on Friday night, told nrl.com: "He's probably going to have to have a little bit of time off, I'd say."
Ponga's former Queensland Origin teammate Christian Welch said in a Triple M radio interview: "If you're not going to play finals, what are you going to gain?
"If you have a long-term view of him ... I would be thinking maybe shut him down."
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