Rankin and Hunt get long-awaited NRL union
From high school mates taking differing career paths to 2016 Wests Tigers clubmates, then pre-season rivals and now – finally – NRL teammates; the wait is over for Jordan Rankin and Justin Hunt.
Once school buddies at Palm Beach Currumbin High School, Hunt could only watch on as child prodigy Rankin famously became the NRL's youngest debutant.
Some early-career struggles eventually saw Rankin depart for a career in the UK with Hull, having played just 17 NRL games in six seasons on the Gold Coast, before returning to the NRL this season with Wests Tigers a more mature player.
Hunt has had a number if stints with different NRL and reserve grade teams on both sides of the border, notching 21 NRL appearances with the Rabbitohs, Eels and Dragons before, like Rankin, joining the Tigers this year.
Through the pre-season, the pair pushed each other to compete for Pat Richards' vacant wing spot, with each happy to say the rivalry did nothing to dent the friendship, though Rankin ended up winning the race by default when Hunt injured his back in a pre-season trial match.
Now an untimely shoulder injury to star fullback James Tedesco means the pair of Gold Coast juniors finally get the chance to run out together in an NRL game and Rankin said it's something they'll remember for a long time.
"It's something we've spoken about many a time before and to be able to do that is an achievement for both of us and something we'll definitely look back on not just over the next couple of months but over the next five or 10 years as something we've been able to accomplish together and something we're both really proud of," Rankin told NRL.com.
"He's worked really hard to get in the position he's been in at the moment. He's played pretty well over the last couple of weeks in both the Residents side and the Intrust Super Premiership side as well. He fully deserves his opportunity to play this weekend and it will be the first first grade game we've played together so it will be an exciting time for both of us."
Hunt has had just the two games back from injury and performed well in both, firstly for Wests Tigers in the Intrust Super Premiership a fortnight ago then for NSW Residents against Queensland Residents in last weekend's Rep Round.
"It was a frustrating start for him getting injured in that last trial which kept him out of the side and out of the game for the better part of eight weeks and for him to come back and play one game then play Residents then play first grade is a testament to how well he's trained and how well he's been playing over the last couple of weeks to get himself back in that position," Rankin said.
"All credit to him, he's worked really hard to do that and it's no shock to anyone here that he's done that."
Rankin described Hunt as a dangerous kick-returner and expected more of the same against the Bulldogs on Sunday.
"He's a courageous returner of the football, whether that's as a kick-returner or one off the ruck and he leaves nothing in the tank when he plays a game so it will be no different on Sunday and I hope he has a really good game," he said.
The side overall will be boosted by the return of skipper Aaron Woods and five-eighth Mitch Moses, who was a late withdrawal in the side's drought-breaking win over the Rabbitohs a fortnight ago. That win will also be good for the side's confidence after a run of six losses.
"It was a good win, it was a scratchy win, it was never going to be an easy win knowing the run of performances we had previous to that so for us it was just about no matter what happened we needed to get the two points and we did that," Rankin said of the 30-22 result in Round 9.
"We had some lapses in defence and attack as well but that's all a learning process and something we've been working hard on to get ready for this weekend.
"We've got a bunch of boys that really want to work hard for each other. That hasn't shown as much in the previous six weeks but we've got guys that really want to work hard for the person next to them."