Paul McGregor sat down with Ben Hunt at a Wollongong restaurant in January to tell him why he needed him.
To tell him why the St George Illawarra Dragons needed him. It’s the same reason the club regularly checked in on Hunt throughout his final year at the Brisbane Broncos. The reason why the Dragons coach flew to Brisbane at the end of the season for lunch with the man most believe holds the key to the future of the organisation.
“He [McGregor] spoke about his time at the Dragons and said that throughout his time at the club, the only thing he felt like they never had was a true halfback,” Hunt told NRL.com.
“He said he was looking for a halfback that was just a halfback, not a five-eighth. He wanted someone that could steer the boys around the park. He said he wanted someone that would let Gareth [Widdop] play his footy.”
The Dragons have had plenty of quality pivots at the club since the joint venture’s formation in 1999. Trent Barrett, Anthony Mundine, Jamie Soward.
But they’ve never possessed a top-line halfback. Even when they won the premiership in 2010 under the tutelage of Wayne Bennett, they did so with a makeshift No.7 in Ben Hornby.
It’s why they paid big bucks to lure Hunt south on a five-year deal worth in excess of $1 million per season.
It was a deal that changed the NRL landscape. Hunt didn’t know it at the time, but the huge contract would become the barometer for all off contract and disgruntled NRL players in what would be the biggest year of player movement in recent memory.
“I heard a bit of chatter about what I was on and people saying ‘he’s getting this much, so I should get this much’,” Hunt said.
“Hearing that stuff, it did make me feel a bit funny to hear people referencing me about what they should be getting. They should be talking about Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk and those blokes.
“I think the way the game is going the salary cap keeps creeping up and the prices for quality players are going to keep creeping up as well. Whatever a club is willing to pay someone for their position, you get what you can.”
The 27-year-old, who will move to the Sutherland Shire to start the new chapter of his career, is not feeling any greater expectation than what he has already experienced during his career.
“I don’t think there can be any more pressure on a half in the comp than in Brisbane,” Hunt said.
“Pressure doesn’t bother me anymore. I’m pretty good with it.”
There was a time Hunt was nothing more than a bits and pieces player. A stop-gap solution. He played more than 60 games off the bench before he finally was given a genuine opportunity to make the permanent move into Brisbane’s halves.
Hunt credits Anthony Griffin for having a significant impact on his career as he was the coach who first showed the faith in him to become a regular No.7.
“It sunk into my head that this might be it forever,” Hunt said.
“That all I could be was the bloke who filled the utility role off the bench. But at the end of 2013 Anthony Griffin gave me a chance to play in the halves.
“That off-season he told me I would be the No.7. That gave me the confidence that I finally felt comfortable in first grade. That I belonged.”
The criticism for the Dragons under McGregor’s watch has been their inability to attack with the same level of potency as the top sides.
They went some way to changing that in 2017, but they were unable to capitalise on a strong start to the season and missed the finals.
“I’ve seen it at the Broncos where we go through patches where we struggle to attack as well,” Hunt said.
“You get in and train really hard with a decent squad, you’ll be able to get your attack going. Look at what Gareth did this year – he was winning games by himself down there.
‘’If we can get a good combination going and start working with Cameron McInnes – I think he’s a good little hooker, I think we’ll get the attack firing for sure.
“I want to go down there and bring something to the Dragons that they need. I want to come down and be the halfback they wanted.”
The Dragons have played finals football once since Wayne Bennett left at the end of 2011.
Even then, they scraped into the playoffs in eighth position and were bundled out in week one. Failure won’t be tolerated in 2018, especially after blew a golden opportunity last season with a final-round loss to Canterbury Bulldogs.
But as McGregor mentioned to Hunt back in January, there’s always been one key ingredient missing.
“If I can bring what I know I can bring, and looking at the team we’ve got, I think we can finish in the top four,” Hunt said.