Ben Hunt is who he is, but is that enough?
MOST halves start young, because young halves are invariably seen as prodigies and prodigies aren't supposed to wait until they're old and cunning.
Think about Nathan Cleary playing first grade when he was barely old enough to shave, or Luke Brooks copping Andrew Johns comparisons before he even debuted at the age of 18, or, more recently, Tom Dearden being tagged the saviour of Brisbane two months after he could buy his first schooner.
Ben Hunt was supposed to be like that, but it went another way. After his NRL debut in 2008, Hunt played 82 NRL games before he became a full-time halfback. That's more games than Nathan Cleary has played in his entire career.
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With 235 NRL games now to his credit, Hunt is second only to Mitchell Pearce (276) as the most capped starting halfback in the league, which should surprise given he's only been a full-time halfback since 2014.
Despite his vast experience and some of the fine seasons he's had in the past, Ben Hunt never seems fully formed. Even now, it's still not uncommon to find people who think his best position is hooker.
There's a saying about old dogs and new tricks for a reason, and while Hunt is by no means timeworn at 29 it's difficult to imagine him ever becoming anything else as player other than what he is right now.
What Hunt is right now, and what he's always been, is the kind of player who is very good at the things he's good at. When Hunt plays straight, and at the line, he's a very dangerous ballrunner, one of the best among halves.
His dummy is fabulous, and it's his greatest weapon, but he's also a tremendous support player and, for better or worse, he's always on the ball.
That's not to say Hunt is perfect. His kicking game can be patchy, on his bad days he can sink into a downward spiral, and he's developed an unfortunate reputation of shrinking in the big moments. I would bet all $6 million of Hunt's Dragons' deal the first thing you thought when you read that was his infamous drop in the 2015 grand final, but it runs deeper.
Even on a good day, anybody can put down one of the swirling nightmares Kyle Feldt calls kick-offs but Hunt forgetting the tackle count and failing to get to a kick in the final stages of a sudden-death final against Souths in 2018, when the scores were level no less, is unforgivable for a halfback of his pedigree and talent. Before that, he'd been close to St George Illawarra's best on the night, but when the result is on the line the last five minutes matters more than the previous 75. There's no way around that.
None of this means Hunt is a bum, or overpaid, or a choke artist. He's just not what we have come to expect as a top-tier halfback, and in that he's a victim of his recent contemporaries. The two best halfbacks of the last 15 years are, of course, Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston. Cronk and Thurston could do everything anybody could ever want a halfback to do, they could be whatever they needed their team to be at any time and that's a rare thing in any era.
Because Cronk and Thurston dominated the game for so long, they have become the image of what a top halfback looks like. How quickly we grow accustomed to wonders, because Cronk and Thurston are atypical, not just for this time but for any. They were about as close to as perfect as two players can be, not because they always played perfectly but because there was no area of the game they had not mastered.
There is nobody like that now. James Maloney, in his heyday, came the closest but he's gone as well. Daly Cherry-Evans is the nearest thing going right now, but it's not the same.
Adam Reynolds, Nathan Cleary, Mitchell Moses, Luke Brooks, Shaun Johnson, Michael Morgan and Luke Keary are all fine players, as are Cherry-Evans, Pearce and Hunt, but none of them have the Messianic qualities of Thurston, or the ability to not just control a system, but to be one themselves, like Cronk. That's not anybody's fault - they just don't make them like Cronk and Thurston very often.
Now that Cronk is gone, most of the top halves in the league are like Hunt - they have strengths and weaknesses, and they can't be all things at once. They're like everybody else. The legends are gone, and they've been replaced by mere mortals.
In fact, it's easy to make the case that, for maybe the first time in nearly 40 years, a list of the top five players in the game does not include a halfback.
With the exception of when he was partnered with Gareth Widdop in 2018, Hunt has never had a halves partner who really complemented him, who could cover Hunt's shortcomings with his own strengths.
He's had halves partners like Josh Hoffman and Kurt Mann, and broken-down Ben Barba during one of the low valleys between his mighty peaks, and the enigmatic Corey Norman, whose own idiosyncrasies must be tackled another time.
Hunt had some exhilarating days alongside Anthony Milford, and when they both attacked through the middle and fed off each other it felt like they, and Brisbane, could do whatever they wanted on the football field. They came as close to a premiership as anybody ever can without winning one - but apart from that golden season in 2015, they were just a little too similar, with a few too many of the same strengths and weaknesses. They are both runners at their core, and while they have learned how to distribute and lead and kick, that should always be second to the running.
Hunt doesn't need to play alongside a complete superstar for the pieces to fit - he just needs someone to take the pressure off a little, especially in the kicking department. Blake Green would be a great fit with Hunt, so would Sam Williams, so would Lachlan Lewis or even the new version of old Benji Marshall. In that way, a halves combination can be greater than the sum of its parts.
But there is no time for any of that at the Dragons. Paul McGregor is under tremendous pressure, and if they have another lacklustre season Hunt will cop the majority of the blame.
Halfbacks always wear it, but the monster contract doesn't help and it's easy for pundits to say he's not worth the money, even though if Saints hadn't given it to him another club likely would have offered a deal worth near enough to make no difference. Norman might not be the best fit, but all Ben Hunt can do is be what he is and be what he's been for a long time now.