The man who consigned the Highlanders to one of the most painful losses in recent franchise history is now looking to cement himself as the club’s premier playmaker.

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After three title-winning campaigns with the Crusaders, Mitch Hunt has moved south in search of a more prominent on-field role after living in the shadow of All Blacks star Richie Mo’unga.

Mo’unga has been a key figure for the Christchurch side since debuting for the 10-time champions in 2016, guiding his hometown team to a hat-trick of titles over the last three seasons from first-five.

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His work was rewarded with a maiden All Blacks call-up at the end of 2017, and the 25-year-old has since gone on to dislodge Beauden Barrett as New Zealand’s top No. 10, with the two-time World Rugby player of the year instead deployed at fullback throughout last year’s World Cup in Japan.

Mo’unga’s success for club and country, though, stunted Hunt’s development at Super Rugby level, leaving the Nelson product with the difficult decision to pack his bags and relocate to Dunedin.

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His transfer to the Highlanders is an interesting twist of fate, given that it was Hunt who slotted a phenomenal 83rd minute drop goal from 43m out to hand the Crusaders a dramatic 25-22 victory over their South Island rivals three years ago.

That win helped lay the platform for the Crusaders to go on to claim the first of their three successive championships, but a switch of allegiance means Highlanders fans will now have to put their faith in the player who is famous for breaking their hearts.

Subsequently, Hunt was wary about a frosty reception surrounding his arrival at Forsyth Barr Stadium, but as the Highlanders come to terms with a mass exodus of established players following the World Cup, those fears have been quickly alleviated.

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“I was pretty nervous coming down, how I was going to be received from a playing group, but because there’s so many fresh faces, I wasn’t the only one in that boat,” he told reporters on Monday.

“I’m just excited. There’s new combinations, new mates, it’s the works, so can’t wait to get stuck in.”

As a first-five, one of those new combinations will be with veteran All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith, who created a formidable halves partnership with incumbent Highlanders pivot Josh Ioane last season.

In fact, the duo worked in tandem so well in Ioane’s breakthrough Super Rugby campaign that the 24-year-old was handed an All Blacks debut against Tonga in a World Cup warm-up clash last September.

Ioane’s exploits as an exciting ball-runner, good distributor and reliable goal-kicker has made him a fan favourite in Dunedin, but Hunt – whose move from Christchurch stemmed from a desire to earn substantial game time – appeared confident with the new dynamic he has built with Smith.

“It exciting, actually,” Hunt said.

“Obviously [I’ve] only had the last 10 days-ish working with him [Smith], but [we’re] already starting to build that wee combination there, and I look forward to it in a game sense to get out and actually play with him.”

That means the race to start in the Highlanders’ No. 10 jersey in their season-opener against the Sharks on Friday will be fiercely competitive.

However, if head coach Aaron Mauger’s pre-season selections are anything to go by, then it could well be Hunt who is handed the early playmaking duties.

The 24-year-old started at No. 10 in the Highlanders’ January fixtures against the Waratahs and Crusaders, with Ioane shifted to second-five and fullback in both matches to accommodate for Hunt.

It seems likely, then, that Mauger might opt for a dual playmaking system in the backline this weekend, which should relieve Hunt of any added pressure as a key shot-caller in what will be his franchise debut – should he be selected.

“[It’s] just having that knowledge out there on the field of vision and decision-making, getting that right communication,” Hunt said of the benefits of having two playmakers on the field at the same time.

“As a No. 10, if you’re getting told ‘in the corner’ [by Ioane], you don’t even have to look, you can just execute when you’re getting that sort of communication.

“We’ve had that chance to do it already and he’s been awesome, so [that’s] something to build on as well.”

The Highlanders will name their side to face the Sharks on Wednesday, before taking to the field for the first time in Super Rugby this year two days later.

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