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Why the focus on NRL playmakers is unhealthy

"How's Ben Hunt, he looks like he's in a pretty dark place at the moment?"

"How's Benny, because he has copped a lot of criticism and it would have to knock him about a little bit?"

"How have you worked on trying to put Ben Hunt back together, because his confidence looks shot?"

There has hardly been a media interview with a St George Illawarra player or coach Paul McGregor during the past month which hasn't involved a question about star halfback Ben Hunt.

Even after the Dragons 48-18 defeat of Brisbane in Sunday's elimination final at Suncorp Stadium, McGregor was asked: "How is Ben Hunt, after some of the criticism he has copped recently?"

McGregor replied: "He was involved in a 48-18 win and he was part of a 1-17, like he is every week. He gets the blame for a lot of things he shouldn't and I am just glad he is in that shed smiling."

Match Highlights: Broncos v Dragons - Week 1 Finals, 2018

The scrutiny and focus on NRL playmakers this season has become unhealthy.

If their team wins the likes of Hunt, Shaun Johnson, Anthony Milford and Nathan Cleary are heroes. If their teams lose, they are failures.

The Broncos' season had barely finished when it was suggested during the post-match analysis on one radio station that the club needed to consider buying a new halfback to either play alongside Milford or replace him.

Forget that Milford had steered Brisbane to a home final after impressive wins over Manly, Sydney Roosters and South Sydney in their last three matches of the regular season, playing behind a forward pack missing Matt Gillett, Jayden Su'a, Jack Bird and Payne Haas.

Johnson has now come under fire in Auckland after the Warriors' 27-12 season-ending finals loss to Penrith on Saturday night, with the Kiwi superstar described as a "million-dollar flop" in a New Zealand Herald article which began: "If only Shaun Johnson had Jazz Tevaga's heart".

Former Warriors coach Tony Kemp also said on radio on Monday that the club may not re-sign Johnson when he comes off contract at the end of next season.

Kemp suggested the Warriors should be "throwing $2 million at someone like Nathan Cleary, a 20-year-old who has the goods to show up week in and week out".

However, commentator Dale Budge told Radio Sport it was unfair to blame Johnson solely for the Warriors' defeat in a game in which they lost captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck with a knee injury midway through the first half and their forwards were outmuscled by the Panthers.

Match Highlights: Panthers v Warriors – Finals Week 1, 2018

"I don't understand New Zealand sports fans' obsession with trying to bag certain players. I put him in the same category as Brendon McCullum," Budge said.

"Shaun Johnson is never going to be Cooper Cronk or Johnathan Thurston. He's never going to be able to inspire a team that isn't dominating up the middle third with the forwards."

Brett Finch once blamed Andrew Johns for setting a standard other halfbacks couldn't live up and now it's Cronk and Thurston who playmakers are compared to.

Cleary hasn't been immune to criticism either after the Panthers dropped from first place going into State of Origin and suffered a string of losses while his NSW halves partner James Maloney was injured.

It was even suggested that Cleary and Maloney don't get on.

"That's just part of the 24-7 news cycle isn't it," McGregor said of the constant re-evaluating of the worth of NRL playmakers. "That's just part of their job isn't it – to either praise or to criticise."

With such heavy scrutiny, it is little surprise that Hunt last week revealed to he had withdrawn from social media and was seeing a psychologist, or that Mitchell Pearce had reached out to offer him support.

Few playmakers have been more maligned than Pearce but after moving from the Roosters to Newcastle this season he has been earning praise rather than criticism because the expectations are lower.

What casual observers of the game wouldn't realise that Hunt remains fifth in the NRL for try assists (15) and equal 12th for line-break assists (11) with Johnson.

Hunt, who was personally targeted by some Dragons fans as he walked up the tunnel at Jubilee Oval two weeks ago following the team's capitulation to Canterbury, was being praised on Sunday for a performance in which he had a hand in three tries and produced a 40/20 kick.

"It's a really good feeling," Hunt told Sunday Night with Matty Johns. "I've been copping a bit of a hiding the past month or so. To come out tonight and really get into them, it was very satisfying."

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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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