Hunt dropped for Broncos
The Brisbane Broncos have taken a step towards the future, dropping the departing Ben Hunt to reserve grade while guaranteeing his replacement Kodi Nikorima the No.7 jersey in 2018.
Hunt will leave for the St George Illawarra Dragons at the end of the year after signing a multi-million dollar six-year deal with the Red V in January.
The talented halfback may not play in the NRL until he arrives at his new club, with coach Wayne Bennett sending him to the Intrust Super Cup to play for the Ipswich Jets this weekend.
Hunt had only played two games since returning from a hamstring injury that saw him miss five matches, with the Broncos losing both in Round 12 and Round 13.
It was enough for Bennett to wield the axe, favouring New Zealand international Nikorima over Hunt, with Nikorima doing a fine job at halfback in the matches Hunt missed due to injury.
In fact, Nikorima went unbeaten between Rounds 7-11, guiding his side to five wins in a row while combining well with five-eighth Anthony Milford.
These performances have seen Bennett guarantee the young halfback a long-term future in the halves at the club.
"Kodi was under a lot of pressure last year to go to other clubs and everyone was telling him that he wouldn't get an opportunity here, but we convinced him to stay," Bennett said.
"We've always thought he had a long-term future here and it was just a case of where that was.
"But now with Ben making his decision to go it has opened up an opportunity for Kodi and there is no doubt that Kodi will be the halfback here next year."
As for hunt, it looks as if his tenure as Broncos halfback may be over, with the 27-year-old out of favour at the club he has been with for almost 10 years.
But an early release is off the cards, with Bennett keen on keeping the lively half around for added depth heading into the back end of the year.
As for why Hunt has suddenly fallen down Brisbane's halves ranks, there is one main reason – he has lost his ability to run.
That is according to Bennett, who said Hunt's running game had not been as effective in 2017 compared to previous years.
"We need him to run the ball more. He's one of the best ball runners in the game," he said.
"One of the criteria to play rugby league is to run the ball. We need him to run the ball.
"It wasn't an easy decision but it's been made. The reason is Ben's form.
"Benji Marshall has played well and so has Kodi. Anthony has picked his game up in the last three or four weeks so it came down to who I wanted to put where.
"Ben's form coming off an injury hasn't been where we wanted it to be. They are always hard discussions.
"It's about having options and guys playing well. That's what it came down to."
With Hunt out of the side and Nikorima starting, 32-year-old Marshall will continue his resurgence, coming off the bench after two impressive games at five-eighth.
This form of Marshall's put the pressure on Hunt and the Australian international understood the reasoning when told the news of his demotion.
"Ben handled it well. He understood," Bennett said of Hunt's axing.
"Ben has always been going to the Dragons next year. It's not this year. He's an important part of our club and it will remain that way.
"He won't be out of first grade for too long. He just needs to go back and fix a couple of things in his game. He won't be going anywhere [this year]."
But Hunt wasn't the only player to be dropped, with impressive young prop Herman Ese'ese also being sent back to the Intrust Super Cup.
Ese'ese has had his best year in the NRL during the 2017 season after being promoted to the starting side on many occasions, but for Bennett it was time to give the 22-year-old a rest from first grade.
"He's been up too long. Young front-rowers are like that. The pressure every week on them isn't easy so he needs to have a bit of a spell," Bennett said.