Versatile Hunt aims to claim vacant Origin halves role
As he prepares to face his former Brisbane Broncos teammates for the first time, St George Illawarra Dragons recruit Ben Hunt admits he owes Wayne Bennett for re-igniting his Test and Origin career by moving him to hooker.
However, on the eve of Thursday night’s opening Telstra Premiership game between the Dragons and Broncos at Jubilee Oval, Hunt has declared his ambition to win one of vacant Queensland and Australian halves roles.
"I am more than happy to play any position in a rep side but ideally I would like to play in the halves and there are a couple of opportunities there now," Hunt says of Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston’s decision to retire from representative football.
"There is a fair bit of competition for those positions so I am going to have to have an exceptional start to the year if I am going to be picked in one of those positions."
After signing a lucrative five-year deal with the Dragons, he is hoping for greater stability and security than he had at the Broncos last season under Bennett.
"I played four grades in one season so it was definitely one of the strangest years I have been a part of," Hunt told NRL.com.
After missing six weeks with a torn hamstring, he returned for one match before being dumped to play in the Intrust Super Cup for Ipswich Jets, was recalled for a match and then moved to hooker after Andrew McCullough injured his knee.
The way Hunt responded to the setbacks earned him a bench spot for Queensland in State of Origin III, and a place in Australia’s World Cup-winning squad at the end of the season.
"To be honest, if I didn’t have to play in that dummy-half position I probably don’t get picked in those rep teams," Hunt said.
"I guess it showed I had a bit of versatility in my game and that I can slot in there if they need me to. It took a lot of work and being dedicated and believing in myself and how I can play my footy.
"When Wayne dropped me back to Ipswich I just accepted it, there was nothing I could do about it except go and play some good footy. That is what I tried to do, just work my way back into the team."
It is an indication of how unlikely Hunt thought it was that he would be playing in the World Cup that he and wife Bridget booked their wedding on the same weekend the Kangaroos played France in Canberra.
"We booked the date in April and I didn’t really expect to be in the Australian squad at all back then so I had to ask Mal Meninga if I could still get married," Hunt said. "I don’t know what we would have done if Mal said no."
Hunt’s ability to cope with adversity and calmness under pressure are the reasons the Dragons targeted him as the playmaker they believe can turn the narrow losses of last season into wins.
He was able to withstand a year of scrutiny at the Broncos after signing with the Dragons last January and overcame the ignominy of dropping the ball from the kick off at the start of extra time in the 2015 golden point grand final loss to North Queensland Cowboys.
"I have found throughout my career that I am pretty good at putting things aside and just worrying about what is in front of me," Hunt said.
"That was definitely the biggest test I have ever had. That was one that really pushed it to the limit. It was pretty hard up until we got back into training again.
"Once pre-season started it all felt pretty normal, you were back doing what you love, playing footy and focused on the year ahead. Your goal remains the same, to win the grand final, so it just faded away pretty quick."
At the Dragons, Hunt’s aim is the help the club make the play-offs for the first time since 2015.
It has been noticeable in the pre-season fixtures against Hull FC and South Sydney Rabbitohs that Hunt has taken pressure off the players around him because of his willingness to run the ball, as well as his kicking and passing game.
"I don’t think you can find anyone who doesn’t hate losing but I hate it a lot," he said. "When the game is on the line I definitely want the ball in my hands to try and create something.
"I have always really hated losing so whenever I get the opportunity to put my stamp on the game or change the outcome I will do my best to do that."
However, Hunt believes he will have plenty of support at the Dragons and is excited about the players he will work most closely with – five-eighth Gareth Widdop, right-edge back-rower Tyson Frizell and hooker Cameron McInnes.
"I don’t think I have ever seen anyone train as hard as Cam does," Hunt said. "He is definitely someone who is going to play rep footy. He is just that hungry and has a desire to do absolutely anything for his teammates."
Hunt will defend in the line outside Frizell and he believes the pair will also form a good combination in attack.
"He is such a great player, we have got to find different ways to get him the ball,” he said. “He does quick play-the-balls and he has got great leg speed and he is always getting metres for you so it is very exciting having him as my back-rower."
With Widdop on the left side of the ruck and Hunt on the right, the Dragons will have more attacking options than previous seasons.