Cold betrayal in $6m star’s fall from grace
COACHING dramas aside, the Dragons' downward spiral is the biggest storyline in the NRL and Ben Hunt is the main character - but he wishes he wasn't.
St George Illawarra signed the former Brisbane halfback to a five-year deal with an option for a sixth season worth $6 million, hoping he could fill the playmaking void and deliver the joint-venture club its first premiership since 2010.
Hunt looked like the buy of the season in the opening 12 rounds as he orchestrated the Dragons' run to the top of the table.
His form convinced Queensland coach Kevin Walters to pick him as the state's No.7 for State of Origin I and anoint him the "future" of the Maroons.
"We're very fortunate. No (Johnathan) Thurston, no (Cooper) Cronk but in comes Ben Hunt and Cameron Munster who are, I think, the future for the Maroons," Walters said at the team announcement.
"I've really liked working with Ben when I was at the Broncos. I can see the skill level and the desire in Ben to become a really good halfback. We've seen that progression, especially this year at the Dragons and I expect that to continue at the next level for Queensland."
But two stuttering performances in the interstate arena later and Walters had backflipped.
Two indifferent games, the second the most damning when Hunt failed to make the most of a one-man advantage in Origin II after James Roberts was sin-binned with 10 minutes remaining, was all it took for Walters' faith to be washed away.
Daly Cherry-Evans was promoted to halfback and Hunt dropped to the bench for Origin III, where he filled in at dummy-half when starting hooker Andrew McCullough took a breather.
Since that unceremonious dumping Hunt, and the Dragons, have suffered an alarming fall from grace.
They've lost five of their past six games and slumped to fifth on the ladder. Their latest defeat was a 40-4 thumping at the hands of 15th-placed Parramatta, while they also conceded 36 points against the Roosters in Round 20 and 52 points against Melbourne in Round 17.
Last week former NSW hooker Michael Ennis declared: "Ben Hunt has obviously struggled with confidence coming out of the Origin series."
He hasn't been the only one, but as the man in charge of steering the side around, his form slump has been the most glaring.
Against the Eels he had 45 possessions, 10 line engagements, one try assist and four missed tackles but the most worrying stat was his zero runs.
Five-eighth Gareth Widdop dislocated his shoulder in Saturday's loss and ex-Maroons pivot Ben Ikin said Hunt needs to step up in the absence of his halves partner or else the Dragons can kiss their premiership hopes goodbye.
"Gareth Widdop is out and like the Cowboys, who lost Johnathan Thurston (in 2017), a lot of the responsibility now with the Dragons No.6 on the sideline will fall to Ben Hunt. He needs to be at his best," Ikin said on NRL 360.
"If you look at his numbers in that loss to the Eels, they were suitably unimpressive.
"I've picked up signs from Ben Hunt over the last month, post-Origin, his football started to get a little frantic and I could see that he gets rattled at times.
"When he gets rattled he tends to withdraw and (in) that game on the weekend I saw him withdraw.
"He needs to rediscover, as the Dragons chief playmaker left in that side, his best form ASAP or else the Red V are no chance."
On Monday Ennis had more to say about Hunt, acknowledging while he wasn't the only culprit, if you're a halfback getting paid $1 million a year you've got higher standards to meet.
"We can single out Ben Hunt because he's come to the club as the marquee man, as the No. 7, and did he have any impact on the game the other night? No he didn't. None at all," Ennis said.
"That's why he was brought to the club, to fix this time of year. When you come on a million dollars (a season), you come there as the marquee man in the No. 7 jersey, you're expected to stand up and deliver."
Penrith great Mark Geyer was another to lay the boot in after the demoralising loss to Parramatta.
"They need more from Ben Hunt," he said. "Ben Hunt simply can't be on a million dollars a year and have no runs for no metres."
The 28-year-old was more than earning his pay packet before the Origin period but since Walters ruthlessly dumped him as Queensland's first receiver, he's yet to rediscover anything close to the form that made him the competition's best halfback.
The general consensus seems to be he's suffering from a crisis of confidence - one that is symptomatic of the Dragons' plight. In recent years they've forged an unwanted reputation for starting strong but fading when it mattered most.
Last year the Red V won only four of their last 12 games and while 2018 hasn't been that dire, it's following a similar trend. He may just be one man but the reality is it's up to Hunt to arrest the slide.