ST GEORGE Illawarra coach Paul McGregor believes incoming halfback Ben Hunt is still a “genuine number seven” despite the 27-year-old’s emergence as a Broncos finals X factor at dummy-half.
Hunt will shift to Wollongong next season after the Dragons lured him south with a six-year $6 million deal to partner skipper Gareth Widdop in halves.
Hunt agreed to the lucrative and lengthy deal prior to the start of the season but has endured a patchy 2017 campaign that saw him dropped to the Ipswich Jets by coach Wayne Bennett.
He’s since made his way back into the top grade through injuries to Bennett’s first-choice halves combination of Kodi Nikorima and Anthony Milford.
With Nikorima and Milford now both fit, Hunt has experienced a late-season form resurgence in the No. 9 jumper after regular hooker Andrew McCulloch suffered a season-ending ACL injury in round 21.
He also made his Origin debut in Queensland’s game three victory as a bench utility, but McGregor insists he’s had no cause to doubt his quality as genuine No. 7.
“[Hunt] was certainly someone I Iooked upon that could take the club in a new direction and I haven’t changed my opinion there,” McGregor said.
“I haven’t coached him yet but I like how he competes, I like how he takes the line on, I certainly like his enthusiasm. He’s a genuine halfback who likes to take control.
“He’s played for his country, he’s playing for Queensland at the moment and and he’s at the top end of the halfbacks going around.”
Asked about his shift to dummy-half for the Broncos McGregor said: “He’s done what’s needed for their team.
“They lost a quality player McCulloch and obviously the coach has asked him to do a job there for him.
“He’s been shifted to the interchange, coming on after 20 minutes and held his own and played some really good footy out there.”
Hunt suffered an injury scare at training this week but Bennett confirmed on Thursday that he will play against his future club, with McGregor promising no favours.
“For us this week, he’s just another player in a jumper for the opposition,” McGregor said.
“He’s going to do his best for the opposition and we’ve got to do our best to stop him.”
The Dragons have been dealt some late injury concerns of their own with four players struck down by illness and injury, though Nene Macdonald (knee) was the only player left out of the revised squad released on Thursday night.
“We’ve had an eventful morning, two guys stayed in bed this because they were ill with flu and we lost two at training today,” McGregor said on Thursday.
“We came up a day early on Wednesday thinking we would get the jump but a couple of guys woke up under the weather and now this [injuries].”
The disruptions could not have come at a worse time with the Dragons walking a finals tight-rope over the final three rounds.
“It’s a big game, as was last week and next week,” McGregor said.
“We’ve put ourselves in this position. We’ve lost a couple of games we shouldn’t have but they’re gone now.
“We can only focus on what happens next. We’ve got to win two of our last three and this is the first one.”