It was the moment that swept away any doubts about Ben Hunt and the criticism surrounding his market value.
Fittingly, the much-maligned Maroons playmaker proved to be the match-winner Queensland needed to give Billy Slater victory in his first series as coach and finally put to bed the naysayers who have fed off some of the lower points of his career.
The $1 million-plus-a-season player’s redemption came full circle in the dying moments of the decider, when he somehow managed to pluck a Nathan Cleary chip-kick out of the air and race more than 70 meters to drive the final nail into the New South Wales coffin.
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His NRL transition from the Broncos to the Dragons was anything but smooth, with the star’s hefty salary paving the way for critical fans and media members to dub his signing a mistake, pointing to the club’s empty trophy cabinet since as evidence of a failed investment.
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Constant reminders of his infamous drop in the 2015 grand final have dogged him for years, even leading to his wife taking aim at the constant “bullying” the star had to endure in the media, as questions were asked about his worth in the league.
On top of that, in his first year at the Dragons in 2018, he and his partner, Bridget, were dealing with the grievance of miscarriage, while dealing with all the noise dogging his career.
Even when Hunt had to swallow a positional change to the No.9 jersey in the Origin arena, a proposition that would be hard to cop for a career halfback, he proved to add plenty of spark wherever he slotted in, whether it was at rake , five-eighth, halfback or lock.
His kicking game has evolved, with his pivotal 40/20 in Origin III giving the Queenslanders an edge at a crucial time.
For the past two seasons, Hunt has kicked more 40/20s than anyone, often from dummy-half, mastering the tactic which was put to good use by Maroons legend Cameron Smith.
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“That 40/20 was unbelievable and the timing of it,” Smith said on Nine’s coverage before lauding the match-winning moment.
“This play, I don’t know how he came up with the football in his hands. That short chip over the top and back himself to run himself home.”
Hunt’s improved kicking game is proof the halfback’s confidence has returned after the forgettable moment in 2015, with Anthony Griffin’s arrival at the Dragons leading to the captaincy and the No.7 jersey.
Speaking after the match, Slater praised Hunt’s impact on the game but also acknowledged his form in the Origin arena over the last few years.
“He’s been the Ron McAuliffe Medallist (Queensland’s player of the series) twice in the last three series before this one. He really earned that starting spot, even playing a different position than he does every week for the Dragons,” Slater said.
“He was out on his feet half way through that second half. He was one of those guys in the middle doing all that work and we needed to give him a rest. I feel if we didn’t give him a rest he may not have got there in the end, but what a performance.
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“He’s a great competitor. He’s one of the greatest competitors our game has seen.”
Maroons skipper Daly Cherry-Evans also paid Hunt the ultimate compliment, saying the star is one of the group’s leaders.
“He’s become a really good friend of mine from playing Queensland footy together. He’s actually somebody that I lean on,” Cherry-Evans said.
“I’ve leant on him a heap of times in this series and that probably shows where he’s at with his footy.
“He’s a big part of the Queensland team at the moment and I’m really proud of the way he’s played.”
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