Hunt ready for biggest test alongside great mate McCullough
When Ben Hunt first met Andrew McCullough he was worried sick that he would beat him to a Queensland representative five-eighth jersey.
That was 16 years ago and it was mate against mate. State of Origin footy is often billed that way, but on Wednesday night it will be mate alongside mate when 28-year-old blood brothers Hunt and McCullough line up for Queensland against NSW at the MCG in the halfback and hooker positions.
It was in 2002 that Hunt and his now close friend were representing their regions in the same position when the competitive juices in both of them flowed.
"I remember clearly that I was playing for Capricornia and Macca was playing for Darling Downs and we were both playing five-eighth for our regions at a carnival," Hunt told NRL.com.
"He played really well and I thought he was going to get picked for Queensland at five-eighth. I was feeling shattered. Then they ended up picking both of us – him at fullback and me at five-eighth. So we ended up playing our first game together as 12-year-olds for Queensland.
"[Now Australian batsman] Chris Lynn was the halfback, so it was an interesting little team. He was a very handy footy player and ended up choosing cricket, and that has worked out pretty well for him."
It worked out pretty well for McCullough and Hunt too. They were snapped up by the Broncos and played together for a decade before Hunt linked with the Dragons this year on a multimillion-dollar deal.
Cameron Smith passed the ball to Cooper Cronk on more occasions in modern times than any other hooker/half combination in a liaison that won countless games for Melbourne, Queensland and Australia. Hunt's long-standing relationship with McCullough has him convinced that union will also reap rewards on Wednesday night.
"It is a massive boost for both of us,” Hunt said.
"We are both very new coming into Origin, so the confidence we have in our combination after playing together for 10 years is going to be a key.
"He is a great talker and one thing we've learned over the years is that we are willing to give each other a spray and tell each other what we want if we need something. We will go to each other and have a crack if one of us is not doing their job."
And "doing his job" is something Hunt said McCullough would most definitely do for the Maroons. He has blazed a trail behind the scenes that Hunt has tried to emulate.
"We lived together for a number of years and he is one of the most dedicated and hard-working blokes that I have ever come across," Hunt said.
"We'd have fun together off the field but when it came to training - whether it be ice baths, stretching and all the little things that make a difference - he didn't miss a beat.
"I wasn't as strict. The older I got the better I got with it, but he was always like that from the get-go. He really helped me out with all that. I saw him doing the hard yards… and getting results, and that helped me get mine."
The duo played with and against each other in school and rep sides as youths and were two of the last players brought to the Broncos by master recruiter Cyril Connell, a fact Hunt reflects on with gratitude and pride.
"It is pretty special and I am forever grateful to Cyril for that," Hunt said.
"The first time I met Cyril was out at Blackwater [in Central Queensland] when he watched me play out there.
"I was a Broncos supporter and to have someone telling you they want you to be part of the club as a 14- or 15-year-old is special.
"Cyril was getting on [in] years and when I'd come down to Brisbane he'd pick me up at the airport and we'd drive over a few gutters on the way to Red Hill, but we never had too many bad crashes."
You don't see Hunt have too many "bad crashes" on the field these days either. As he prepares to start in a Queensland jersey for the first time it will be as a complete halfback. He's taken the best advice from those he respects to mould his game, including Dragons halves partner Gareth Widdop and his Maroons coach Kevin Walters.
"I have gotten lucky that Kevvie likes me so much and is around as Queensland coach at this time in my career," Hunt said.
"It goes back to my time at the Broncos when he coached me and I always felt he got the best out of me as a player and gave me the right directions. He thinks I have a great running game and encourages me to do that."
It is the decision-making nous of Widdop that Hunt said he had adapted to his own play and hoped to bring to the table on Wednesday night.
"He's a special player Gareth and I definitely think he's helped my game," Hunt said.
"I have played with a lot of great players but he is up at the top. He has a knack for knowing when to get the ball and what play to put on."
Twelve months ago almost to the day Hunt was dropped by the Broncos to play Intrust Super Cup with Ipswich.
“It has been a strange but exciting 12 months, from going back to Ipswich to getting the opportunity to play for Australia," Hunt reflected.
"It is definitely a year I am not going to forget in a hurry.
"I am ready for Origin. With that Queensland team it is harder to get into than get out of at times. Once you get in there and do a job for Queensland they like to show faith and stick with their players. I've had to wait my turn, play some good footy and now I have my opportunity. It is all on me now."
Witness Australia's greatest sporting rivalry when Origin comes to the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Wednesday, June 6. Bronze tickets available from $49 here.