The Curious case of Ben Hunt

Sporting history is made up of memorable and defining moments.

History was made in 2015 when the North Queensland Cowboys defeated the Brisbane Broncos in one of greatest rugby league grand finals ever played.

It was a game full of memorable and defining moments, but none more memorable than Ben Hunt dropping the kick-off in golden point extra time which led to a Johnathan Thurston field goal, securing a maiden premiership for the Cowboys.

Is it a moment that has defined the career of Hunt thus far?

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It’s a moment that’s made him the most polarising figure in the NRL. Some leap to the playmakers defence during the tough times, while others criticise him for being unable to deliver on the big stage or when his team needs him the most.

Since the 2015 grand final, Hunt’s form over the past three seasons has been inconsistent at best.

He missed out on a big money contract with the Broncos, as they opted to invest millions on former halves partner Anthony Milford. He was dropped to reserve grade by his former coach Wayne Bennett midway through the 2017 season, only to return and earn an Origin debut for Queensland off the bench.

Then, perhaps to the surprise of many, he was offered a mega $6 million, five-year contract to play for the St George Illawarra Dragons.

With big money contracts, comes a huge amount of responsibility, pressure to succeed and produce the winning plays in those defining moments in big games.

Hunt’s 2018 season began with a lot of promise, producing a stellar performance over his former club in Round one. He then went on to earn the vacant halfback jumper for Queensland for the State of Origin series opener.

Despite Hunt’s early season form with the Dragons, the memories of his 2015 grand final nightmare led to many questions on whether he’d be able to handle the big stage on the eve of Origin one. He produced a reasonable performance but was unable to get Queensland over the line.

Those same questions lingered on the eve of Origin two with the series on the line for Queensland. Unfortunately for Hunt, he was unable to deliver during the key moments of the match and New South Wales claimed a rare series victory.

In perhaps the defining moment of the series, for New South Wales, Hunt kicked the ball dead on the third tackle, when the Blues were down to 12 men and on the ropes.

The ghosts of the 2015 grand final came back to haunt Hunt again, as he was crucified by the media and fans after Origin two and copped most of the blame for Queensland’s loss.

To make matters worse for Hunt, he was overlooked for the halfback role in Origin three, relegated to the bench as Queensland selectors opted to re-call Manly halfback, Daly Cherry-Evans. This was a major blow for Hunt’s confidence and his form for the Dragons hasn’t been the same since.

While many often critique Ben Hunt’s game and express their opinions on what he needs to do, and what not do to improve, there’s one question that often gets overlooked or ignored – is halfback Ben Hunt’s best position?

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Players who are fortunate enough to don the number seven jersey at NRL level is due to one of two factors, you’re either a naturally talented halfback like Johnathan Thurston, or you’re a manufactured halfback from sheer hard work and determination like Cooper Cronk.

Hunt spent the majority of his first four years playing first-grade as a bench utility for Brisbane, often used at dummy half. In 2017, he was switched from halfback to hooker at the backend of the season to cover the loss of Broncos regular number nine, Andrew McCullough, who suffered a season ending injury.

Hunt was sensational at hooker. He was solid in defence, potent in attack and helped guide the Broncos deep into the finals, which resulted in calls for Dragons coach Paul McGregor to play Hunt at hooker instead of halfback when he arrived at the club, as well as calls for Hunt to be handed the Maroons number nine jersey when Cameron Smith retired from representative football just weeks before the Origin series began.

Fast forward to Origin three and as mentioned earlier, Hunt was relegated to bench utility. He was injected into the game in the 30th minute at dummy half and played so well that he kept starting hooker Andrew McCullough off the field until the 76th minute.

His first half try against the Roosters in Round 20, further proves his vision out of dummy half is as good as any hooker going around.

With the Dragons currently experiencing yet another late season fade out, those same questions remain as to whether Hunt can lead his side to a grand final, then whether he can step up in the grand final to deliver a premiership.

If he can’t, then the Dragons have a major dilemma, as it seems they’ve signed a naturally talented hooker to play as a manufactured halfback, who still has four years left to run on his $6 million contract.

For Ben Hunt, he needs to find the same formula to success as another manufactured halfback, Cooper Cronk, or succumb to the fact that he’s better suited at dummy half for himself and for whichever teams he’s playing for.