St George Illawarra prop James Graham has spoken out in support of halfback Ben Hunt and says it would have been a NSW player in the firing line if Queensland had managed to win last Sunday night’s State of Origin.
Graham, who watched the last 20 minutes of Origin II on the flight home from Denver after helping England to a 36-18 Test defeat of New Zealand, said the scrutiny of the series was so intense that someone on the losing team had to be made the scapegoat.
Hunt was blamed for kicking the ball dead on the third tackle as the Maroons tried to take advantage of the sin-binning of Blues centre James Roberts 11 minutes from fulltime to overcome an 18-14 deficit.
While it was a poor option, Graham said if Queensland had managed to score a try and win the game the focus would have shifted.
"There is so much on the line with Origin but if you look at it from a logical point of view, two good teams are playing against each other and it is 18-14," Graham said.
"That is a pretty close game. One little thing could change it either way and if it was 20-18 to Queensland, and they had scored another try, who are they going to go after for NSW?
"Who is going to be the blame guy? I think most players are smart enough to realise that that's the game so to speak of. That is part of our reality of being a rugby league player."
Graham's comments were echoed by Brisbane and England coach Wayne Bennett, who had been Hunt's mentor at the Broncos before he joined the Dragons this season.
Bennett also watched Origin on the plane and suggested Blues centre Latrell Mitchell would have come in for similar criticism after throwing a poor pass near his own line following a 20-metre restart.
"The bottom line is they [Queensland] have lost the series 2-0. There is going to be criticism. That is just the way it works," Bennett said.
"If Queensland had won the game Ben wouldn't be getting a mention. They just about did win the game, then they would have been talking about Latrell and all the mistakes he made. They are going to pick on someone. You just hope it is not you. If it is you, then you just get on with life."
Hunt bounced back from the criticism on Thursday night to spark a late 20-18 comeback victory for St George Illawarra against Parramatta with another third tackle grubber kick in almost the same part of the field for Euan Aitken to score.
"If we had lost to Parramatta what would have been the reason?" Graham said.
"Denver? Origin? Too many players backing up? But we got the win and everyone talks about the character of the team."
Match Highlights: Dragons v Eels - Round 16; 2018
Dragons captain and five-eighth Gareth Widdop also gave Hunt a vote of confidence, saying he had been a key part of the team's success this season.
"We're confident in Ben, he is a great player and we have all got his back, that is for sure," Widdop said.
St George Illawarra second rower Jacob Host added: "He is a class player, all the boys know what he is capable of and he has played for his country and played State of Origin. He is a great bloke and a great player as well."
Meanwhile, Graham and Widdop said they had always intended playing against the Eels on Thursday night after returning from Test duties with England on Monday morning.
Dragons coach Paul McGregor gave the pair time off until the final training session on Wednesday.
"The Origin boys have had no time off at all so for them boys it can be tough," Widdop said.
"But we've worked a lot on team-first actions and those boys certainly do that."