Faithful Hunt a Broncos blessing
Before Ben Hunt was handed the famous Broncos No.7 jersey on a permanent basis the club wanted to knock his knockabout ways out of him.
While Cameron Smith and Johnathan Thurston were doing their best to elegantly sip red wine at Monday night's Dally M Awards there was Hunt in the corner – often the tally leader – grasping a stubby of beer or a rum and Coke.
Throughout his lengthy apprenticeship the Broncos wanted to know that their investment in a 12-year-old kid from Blackwater was being repaid by a player with the maturity to take control of an NRL team and one day deliver the club a seventh premiership.
On Wednesday the Blackwater Crushers junior was handed an upgraded two-year extension on his current contract with the approval of master coach Wayne Bennett but if it wasn't for Hunt's unfailing determination to one day be the halfback for the Brisbane Broncos, he would have walked away two years ago.
Having been used as a bench utility in the four years after being named the Under-20s Player of the Year in 2008, Hunt was gutted when Scott Prince was signed from the Titans ahead of the 2013 season and those closest to him urged him to seriously consider walking away.
There was talk that he would serve an apprenticeship under Prince and Peter Wallace but it took until Round 20 and a knee injury to Wallace before he was given his first opportunity to cement his spot, and he has been the Brisbane No.7 in every game since.
"There was always a little bit of thought there of other clubs but the Broncos have been great to me from a young age and giving me the opportunity to be where I am now and I was really happy to stay," Hunt said.
"Not getting the opportunity to play in the position that I wanted to play in for several years [was hard]. I was off the bench playing that utility role and at the time I was really happy to do that for the team but I deep down inside I always wanted to play halfback and to get that opportunity this year from Anthony [Griffin] is something that I've always dreamt of doing.
"I'm really proud of this year and what I've done. A lot of people didn't believe that I could take on this halfback role and I'm lucky that I had a couple of people around me and around the club that did believe in me that I could do it and I'm just really proud of where I've come from to where I am now."
Handed the reins in Round 20 last season, Hunt said it wasn't until he was called in to an extended Queensland squad for State of Origin II this year that he began to feel like an established NRL halfback.
In his first three-and-a-half seasons in the top grade Hunt was the starting halfback on just seven occasions and with two unrecognised five-eighths outside him, 2014 would have been a horror year for the club had he not responded in such magnificent fashion.
Of those players to have played halfback on at least 10 occasions this season Hunt was the statistical leader in tries scored (13), line breaks (20) and offloads (19), was second in tackle breaks behind Shaun Johnson and trailed only Johnathan Thurston and Jamie Soward in try assists.
There remain areas of his game that are in need of significant improvement – such as last-tackle options and execution – but he sees no reason why he can't challenge Dally M Halfback of the Year Daly Cherry-Evans for the utility spot on the Maroons bench in 2015.
"I believe I can. I've got a lot of improvement I can make in my game over the pre-season that I can build into next year and I think we're going to be a lot stronger side next year," said the 24-year-old.
"We've got Anthony Milford coming and to play alongside him in the halves is going to open up a few new things for me and I think I'll definitely be pushing for that role.
"It was midway through this year when I got that recognition of being in the Origin squad. I felt like I had a couple of good games here and there but wasn't that consistent and to get recognised at that level I really felt like I was playing some good football and satisfied that I was cemented in a halfback position."
Hunt's signature is another significant building block in the Wayne Bennett rebuild and Broncos CEO Paul White is excited to see how he develops over the next three years.
"I've watched him develop into not only a great player but also a real good young man as well and I think the next three years will be great for Ben," White said.
"He's nowhere near reached his full potential yet and he needs to take the accolades he's been given this year but also go back and relentlessly work harder next year to take his game to the next level. We certainly see him as a player you can build a team around."