While Ben Hunt has been bagged out quite a bit in the wake of his knock-on during the Grand Final, it’s worth pausing to remember that it really could have happened to anyone. When the stakes are that high, the tiniest fumble or error of judgement can have catastrophic consequences, and it’s important not to blame too much of it on Hunt himself. You might say that Hunt’s fumble only represented his general ability as much as Golden Point footy represents regular footy, but even that would probably be overstating it. Sure, he was starting to get messy towards the end of the game – the high tackle on Kane Linnett had Cowboys fans wincing, and has actually copped him a two-week ban – but North Queensland were also looking pretty ragged during those last few minutes as well. With another split-second decision, Hunt could have set himself up as Man of the Match, rather than the recipient of some of the most derisive memes in recent NRL social media history.
So it’s more important than ever to recognise Hunt for what he is – one of the best halfbacks in the game, especially with Anthony Milford as his sparring partner. As Thurston rightly pointed out when he was consoling Hunt after the final point, the Broncos probably wouldn’t have made it to the Grand Final in the first place if it weren’t for Hunt’s vision as a half. In explaining the new-and-improved Brisbane outfit, journalists have rightly looked to Wayne Bennett’s return to the club, as well as his synergy with Darius Boyd, to whom he’s been something of a father-figure. It’s worth remembering, though, that Bennett has also had a similar investment in Hunt, lauding him as one of the best up-and-coming players in the game from his earliest appearances, and encouraging him to join Newcastle during his brief tenure as coach for the Knights from 2012-2014. For Bennett, coming home to Brisbane hasn’t simply involved bringing Boyd back to the Broncos but giving the Broncos a new way of using Hunt’s supreme halfback skills to their advantage.
That said, Hunt’s story is a bit different from some of the other halves in the game as well. While it’s stereotypical to generalise about any one position, it is often true that halfbacks are amongst the most prodigious players in the game, as well as the players whose talents are most apparent from an early age. Think Thurston, Johnson, Cronk and DCE – all players who went from being virtual unknowns to being luminaries of the game within the space of about a year. The same also holds true on the international stage, with halves making up a whopping 54% of all Golden Boot winners since its inception in the early 80s. Of course, that’s not to say that you don’t get genius players in every position, but that there’s a particular onus on up-and-coming halves – think Luke Brooks, Jackson Hastings or Luke Keary – to live up to the halfback hype that seems to close out the season every year, and to get more and more hyperbolic with each year that passes.
Hunt, however, is a bit different. While his rise over the last year has seemed meteoric, he’s actually been with the Broncos since 2009, two years longer than both DCE and Johnson have been playing first-grade. During that time, it’s been a fairly long road to halfback, with long seasons on the bench and his onfield time spent rotating among a variety of different positions until he was provisionally offered the five-eighth position in the wake of Darren Lockyer’s retirement in 2011. Even then, it was only an unusual combination of circumstances – including Corey Norman’s subpar performance as incumbent fullback and subsequent move to the Eels – that got Hunt established as the Broncos’ official halfback. For a prodigious player who’d been stabled with Brisbane for half a decade, things only came together as late as last year, or even this year, if you count Milford’s move from the Raiders as a critical part of Hunt’s growth as well. Still, by 2014, Hunt’s salary was starting to speak for itself, with the Broncos having to double his paycheck just to keep him on board, and rival offers being fielded from just about every other team in the competition in need of a champion half.
All of which must have made Hunt’s final few seconds of the Grand Final all the more shattering. While there was no doubt that Thurston had been heading towards this moment for years, it also felt like a natural end-point for Hunt as well – the moment at which he would make good on his slowly but surely escalating reputation – as well as a moment of a new-and-improved Broncos outfit. In fact, if there was ever an argument to be made against Golden Point, it probably lies in the way it can put the burden of an entire team’s defeat on one player’s shoulder in a fairly unfair and unrealistic manner. Of course, knock-ons always have the power to make or break a game, but when everything depends on a field goal and a try is no longer necessary, they become just that bit more drastic. And that’s not to dispute the Grand Final result either, or to even suggest that Bennett’s alternative of Grand Final rematches would be any more satisfactory, but simply to remind ourselves that Hunt is still one of the best halfbacks in the game, and shouldn’t be tarnished with his slip-up last Saturday night.