Ben Hunt is the Maroons new man – but not starting hooker (or halfback)

With a host of plaudits coming the way of Cameron Smith following his decision to retire from representative football, one issue was firmly off the agenda at his press conference on Tuesday afternoon.

Acting as a celebratory reflection on the state and international career of the future Immortal, the subject of succession was avoided by Maroons coach Kevin Walters on multiple occasions.

Claiming he hadn’t given much thought to who would play hooker or captain the Maroons in Melbourne in three weeks time, Walters’ well-meaning, but transparent deflection allowed Smith to have his moment in the spotlight before serious speculation began to dominate rugby league circles.

Debuting in Game Three – 2003, Smith missed just one Origin in his 14-year career with Queensland.

Ruled out of the 2010 series opener and replaced by recent retiree Matt Ballin, the glaring issue in the Maroons succession plan laid out by the likes of Wayne Bennett, Mal Meninga and Kevin Walters has been developing a specialist hooker.

While utilities such as Karmichael Hunt, Cooper Cronk, Daly Cherry-Evans and Michael Morgan have all been used in the #14 jersey for their versatility in covering multiple positions, none of those players were intended to succeed the highest-capped Origin representative.

As a result, the Maroons face a daunting prospect of debuting an untried hooker to compound the pre-existing absences of match winners Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston.

Prior to Tuesday’s announcement, the general consensus suggested Ben Hunt and Cameron Munster would feature in the halves for Game One, however Smith’s sudden announcement is set to make Hunt arguable the most valuable player for Queensland during the upcoming series.

Given a superficial debut in the latter stages of last year’s decider when the result was beyond doubt, Hunt’s position on the bench shapes as the key to the Maroons extending their unparalleled legacy.

Playing a leading role in St. George Illawarra’s brilliant start to the year, the former Brisbane playmaker proved to be a lethal makeshift rake when called upon in the closing stages of 2017, while having started his career in the NRL as an impact player before seizing his opportunity in the halves under Anthony Griffin, the 28-year-old possesses genuine dummy half skills against weary defences.

With Hunt’s contribution to the Maroons likely to be best served off the bench, the likely candidate to replace Cooper Cronk at halfback would appear to be current Dally M halfback of the year Michael Morgan.

Criticised for his club form in 2018 that has struggled to reach any great heights, the experience of playing in the representative arena is likely to cement the North Queensland playmaker’s case for the vacant halfback role alongside last year’s breakout star Munster.

With the likely candidates for the starting nine role shaping as NRL veterans Andrew McCullough, Jake Friend, premiership winner Jake Granville and former Dally M hooker of the year James Segeyaro – the only current Queenslander to claim the title during Smith’s playing career – the combination each of those players have with the Dragons’ marquee signing will be pivotal in determining who gets the nod by Walters and the Queensland selectors.

  • The major attraction of leading contender Andrew McCullough can be seen in his vast first grade experience, prior combination with Hunt during their time at the Broncos, along with an effective kicking game.
  • Rumoured to be falling out of favour at the Roosters, Jake Friend possesses the approval of current Australian coach Mal Meninga having been selected for the Kangaroos in their 2016 Four Nations series win. Tireless in defence and adept at providing quality service to the players around him, the 2013 premiership winner is not the greatest runner, but in working alongside Hunt, the pair’s combination could prove decisive for the Maroons.
  • Shifting away from Brisbane due to the limited opportunities available due to Hunt’s presence, Jake Granville has been a tremendous player in recent seasons with his blistering speed playing a leading role in the Cowboys maiden premiership victory.
  • Currently playing off the bench at Cronulla, James Segeyaro hasn’t played enough long minutes in first grade since returning from his Super League sojourn, but given his credentials and previous accolades, the Papua New Guinean representative could be the dark horse candidate to take over from Smith.

With Granville and Segeyaro unlikely to be selected due to limited kicking games and similarities in the way in which Hunt is set to be used as a speed man off the bench, the showdown between McCullough and Friend on Friday night should prove telling in determining which player is afforded the monumental responsibility of taking over from Smith.

Regardless of whichever player the Maroons select at hooker, the irrefutable reality that must be acknowledged is that none of the potential candidates will be as effective in their maiden Origin as Smith was over the past decade.

The responsibility of replacing an icon of the game is a task few are adequately capable of achieving.

For all the initial promise, Jarrod Mullen could never live up to the legacy of Andrew Johns. Installed as Darren Lockyer’s heir in 2012, it took a move to Parramatta for Corey Norman to begin to make his mark. In the years following Brad Fittler’s departure from the NRL, the Roosters used countless playmakers before James Maloney helped deliver a premiership almost a decade later.

Very few players are good enough to make the NRL. Even fewer play for their country. The best of the best are afforded the opportunity to play State of Origin.

No one would dare question the talent of any of the contenders discussed to replace Cameron Smith, but for future representative teams to be successful, it is vital that players, coaches and supporters understand that recent history will be looked back on with the same reverence as St. George’s premiership streak from 1956-66.

The run of Queensland has been iconic and for New South Wales supporters torturous, however if the Maroons are to make a case of continuing the status quo, it is essential that Ben Hunt be used as an interchange hooker.

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