'There's bad people out there': How Hunt deals with army of critics

The voices follow Ben Hunt wherever he goes.

They come from over the back fence, from the safety of the hill, reminding him of his past mistakes.

“Remember 2015?!” they shout, a reference to Hunt’s knock-on from the kick-off in golden-point while playing for the Broncos that gifted the Cowboys the premiership. “You’re going to drop it again!”

'If we’re going bad, I knew I’d wear it': Ben Hunt was aware he would be a target should the Dragons fare badly.

‘If we’re going bad, I knew I’d wear it’: Ben Hunt was aware he would be a target should the Dragons fare badly.

Sometimes, the voices remind him of the money he’s now on at the Dragons. They come from his own fans.

“One-point-two!” yell some, a reference to Hunt’s reported $1.2 million-per-season contract.

Then there’s the putrid voices from the swamp of social media.

“Your [sic] unworthy of rep footy,” said one post on Hunt's Instagram after Queensland lost Origin II. Said another: “Your [sic] trash.” Said another: “Go jump off a cliff.”

Then there’s the voices that belong to the coterie of former — and, sometimes, current — players who fill hours of airtime on TV and radio.

Heavy load: Ben Hunt bears the burden of unrealistic expectations.

Heavy load: Ben Hunt bears the burden of unrealistic expectations.

“We can single out Ben Hunt because he’s come to the club as the marquee man, as the No.7, and did he have any impact on the game the other night?” asked former Sharks hooker Michael Ennis on Fox Sports days after the Dragons' 40-4 loss to Parramatta in round 22. “No he didn’t. None at all.”

Hunt can roll with all of this. He can brush it off like most professional athletes do, realising it goes with the territory, with being the halfback, with being the marquee signing, before dusting himself off and going again.

But the voice that really hurts is the voice that he respects, so when retired Australian and Queensland star Johnathan Thurston lines Hunt up like he did on Channel Nine after the Origin II defeat, that’s when it stings.

As for the money … people are throwing around numbers that they don’t even know about. There’s a bit of GST put on most of them.

Thurston, you might recall, blasted Hunt for his attacking kick in the 69th minute which rolled over the dead-ball line. It was the third tackle, the Blues were down to 12 men with James Roberts in the sin bin.

“The first set that they had, Ben Hunt kicks it dead for a 20m restart,” Thurston fumed. “That’s a brain explosion on the third tackle.”

The criticism stung when Hunt heard it the next day.

“JT's got every right to have his opinion and I respect it because I know what he’s talking about," he says. "Some ex-players are talking for the sake of talking. Here’s your topic and you’ve got to come up with something. I have my feelings on who those guys are and I just don’t worry about them.

“But JT’s opinion matters. We’ve spoken since. I wouldn’t say it’s hurtful but it makes me more disappointed in myself because of who it’s come from. That gets you down.”

Ever since that match, Hunt has become the game’s most whacked punching bag. Whack! Whack! Whack! He was apparently the best halfback going around before Origin, worth every cent of the “one-point-two”, but now he’s a dud. Apparently. Whack! Whack! Whack!

If Hunt is feeling like the hunted, he’s not showing it when we meet at a cafe in the Sutherland Shire ahead of the Dragons’ match against the Bulldogs on Sunday at Jubilee Oval.

In many respects, Hunt’s first season in the Red V reminds me of halfback Brett Kimmorley, who left Melbourne in 2000 to join the Northern Eagles for numbers that belonged in a telephone book.

“If we start losing matches,” Kimmorley said at the time, “I know exactly who they will come after.”

He was right. The Eagles finished 10th, Kimmorley was blamed for them missing the finals and he duly took off to Cronulla just one season into his mega-deal.

When Hunt joined the Dragons on a deal reportedly worth $6 million over five years — which equates to "one-point-two!” a season — he did so knowing the contract provided security for him and his family.

He also knew it came with the kind of pressure Kimmorley spoke about all those years ago.

Brutal loss: Ben Hunt after the 2015 grand final.

Brutal loss: Ben Hunt after the 2015 grand final.

“Yeah, I did think about that,” Hunt says. “I knew changing clubs, being the halfback, would bring that. If we did go well they would be saying, ‘This is the best signing of the year’. If we’re going bad, I knew I’d wear it. That was in my mind.

“As for the money, the majority of the time people are throwing around numbers that they don’t even know about. There’s definitely a bit of GST put on most of them. Everyone keeps rounding up the numbers. That’s just the way our game is. Every time someone signs, everyone seems to know how much it’s for and for how long.”

Wearing the Dragons’ No.7 jersey brings added pressure because the club has struggled to find a genuine organising halfback since, well, Billy Smith in the 1970s.

Coach Paul McGregor and recruitment manager Ian Millward years ago identified Hunt as the playmaker the coach wanted alongside five-eighth Gareth Widdop. They started negotiations as far back as late 2016.

“They were very keen from the start,” Hunt says. “They were a lot keener than I was, to be honest. I was never interested in leaving Brisbane. I’m from the bush and Brisbane was big enough for me.”

Playing halfback for the Broncos brings its own brand of expectation, especially after dropping a ball in golden point that allows Thurston to land a wobbly, premiership-winning field goal.

That dropped ball. Replays of the moment seem to pop up on television screens with alarming regularity. The camera zooms in on Hunt. He’s down on his haunches, his index fingers buried into his forehead.

Broncos captain Justin Hodges told him in the dressing-room afterwards “you didn’t lose us the grand final”. Hunt had people knocking on his door for weeks trying to tell him the same thing. He shunned them all, preferring to go away with his family.

“Everyone offered help and wanted to talk to me but I deal with things in my own way," he says. "It’s part of my history. It will always follow me.”

It followed him all the way to Leichhardt Oval on Saturday night when the Dragons played the Wests Tigers.

The voices on the other side of the fence were telling him he was going to drop a kick-off in the second half. Hunt barely listened to them. He hadn’t fumbled a kick-off since the 2015 grand final.

Then he dropped it.

“As soon as I dropped it, I thought, ‘You got me’,” Hunt grins. “There were three or four blokes behind me who were into me before the kick even came. They’re not the first fans to get stuck into me. People bring it up all the time. Random fans. There’s some rough ones out there.”

Days before that match, Hunt’s wife, Bridget, unleashed a 250-word post on her Instagram account about the criticism being levelled at her husband by the media and fans.

“Words have meaning! You may not think they affect the person, but they have meaning!” she posted. “It’s funny, that Ben is apparently being blamed for the Dragons’ performances of late, but it’s funny, last time I checked it’s his first year at the Dragons, and this has happened three years in a row.

“And it’s funny that there’s 17 people in a whole side, yet it’s all his fault!

“Players make errors when they are loosing [sic], and players make errors when they are winning too! Rugby league should not be condoning this culture!”

Hunt knew she was going to post the message, which drew plenty of positive comments from fans. While he isn’t wounded by social media hate, he makes the interesting claim that other players have walked away because of the pressure.

“I’ve had former teammates who have had the same treatment on social media who act like big tough footballers but it’s really gotten to them,” he says. “People just rip in. I’ve blocked a lot of people — and then they start on her [his wife]. I’ve told her that many times to not worry about it and not to retaliate but it got to the point where she wanted to say her bit.

“It wasn’t just about me: it’s about players I have played with and I am still playing with who have copped it over the years and who have dropped out of the league because they have taken it harder than I have. There are some bad people out there.”

It’s important to note that Hunt isn’t playing the victim. Footy’s always been tough, especially for the halfback, especially if you’re the halfback for the Broncos or Dragons or Queensland. Criticism and praise ebb and flow with the result, like it always has.

"It can turn quickly," Hunt smiles. "People forget what they've said pretty easily."

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