Legendary halfback Andrew Johns says Jackson Hastings could be the key to unlocking Kalyn Ponga’s enormous potential as a top-line NRL five-eighth.
Hastings, 26, was announced as Newcastle’s latest signing on Wednesday, moving up the highway in a player swap with David Klemmer.
While he has never been the first-choice No.7 at any of his three previous NRL clubs, Hastings will be frontrunner to start at halfback when the Knights open their 2023 season, according to Johns.
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Hastings was the halfback at Salford in 2019 and won the Super League’s Man of Steel award as the best player in the competition.
“I think it’s a great buy, a really good buy. I worked with Jackson years ago when I was at the Roosters, and he had so much talent,” Johns told Wide World of Sports.
“He went to England and sharpened up his trade. I watched from afar what he did at Salford, the way he played there, and obviously getting the Man of Steel.
“I’m pumped for him to come to Newcastle. It helps our club, it helps our team. He’s an on-ball player, he’s an out-and-out organizing No.7.”
With Hastings taking ownership of the No.7 jersey in the Hunter, Johns wants to see Ponga make the move from fullback to five-eighth.
The 24-year-old superstar has been preparing for the transition, and opted to make himself unavailable for the Rugby League World Cup so he could begin pre-season training with the Knights early.
Ponga started the 2019 season in the No.6 jersey, but the experiment was quickly abandoned by then-coach Nathan Brown.
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Johns believes the time is right for the switch to happen, and the arrival of Hastings gives the Knights a potentially elite halves pairing.
“(Hastings) is an on-ball old-fashioned halfback who just follows the ball and gets his hands on the ball as much as possible, which then frees up Kalyn to go anywhere and play, look for opportunities and communicate to Jackson to get the ball off him,” Johns said.
“I know Kalyn will be one of the best attacking five-eighths in the world. I’ve done bits and pieces with him. Last Friday I was up there… he’s just all class.
“The other side of the game is going to be the test, the defensive side of things. Attack-wise he is without peer.
“We saw what he did in Origin III. He’s just got so much talent.
“Fitness wise he looks really good, and mentally he really wants to make a point and succeed at five-eighth, so it’s good signs.”
Hastings was an Illawarra junior but began his NRL career at the Roosters, where he played 34 games in three seasons before jumping to Manly in 2017.
He left the Sea Eagles in controversy in mid-2018 when he got into an altercation with club captain Daly Cherry-Evans during a team trip.
He fled to England where he salvaged his career over three successful Super League seasons, and returned to Australia this year to play for the Tigers, with whom he found some mid-season form but was then unwanted by incoming coach Tim Sheens.
“He’s coming into the real fat period of his career, this is when you make your legacy as a halfback,” Johns said of Hastings.
“He’s got the next five, six, seven years to really put his legacy out there, and if he gets success at Newcastle his legacy will live on at Newcastle.
“It’s exciting, it’s really exciting.”
The Knights begin their 2023 season against the Warriors on March 3.
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