When Mitch Hunt called time on his career with the Crusaders and packed his bags to head further south, his recruitment was rightly hailed as an excellent pick-up for the Highlanders.
At the time, no player at the franchise has truly nailed down the starting No 10 role and Hunt had proven himself a handy operator for the Crusaders in his four years with the club.
It was also a sensible move for the 25-year-old. He’d shown promise as a young first five but with Richie Mo’unga well and truly entrenched as the Crusaders’ first-choice pivot, opportunities were few and far between with the champion side.
Instead, Hunt found himself jostling with Josh Ioane at the Highlanders.
They weren’t always competing to be the only playmaker on the park, however – sometimes they were simply battling to see who would wear No 10, and would be consigned to a different spot in the backline.
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Since his move south, Hunt has just as often played at fullback as he has first five-eighth. Ioane, meanwhile, has been shuffled between the 10, 12 and 15 jerseys. It’s hard to know where the two are going to pop up next – but you get the feeling that coach Tony Brown is quite happy keeping his opposition guessing.
Regardless of where they’re positioned on the field, however, Hunt is confident that the Highlanders prosper when both players are on the park at the same time – and that his time with his new side has been successful to date, despite the opinions of some on social media.
“I might not be the flashiest player in terms of X-factor and scoring all the tries but I’d like to think that I have a positive impact on the team around game management, game driving and consistency,” Hunt told Stuff ahead of Sunday’s match with the Blues, where Hunt has been named on the bench.
“People are questioning me at the moment at No 10, they’re not rating it. But I’m still getting picked there. It’s the stuff that people don’t see, maybe around the team leadership, or game management, or an extra set of eyes when you get myself and Josh out there.
“That’s a huge help when you are out there. Obviously, the backing of Tony is huge for the confidence, it’s massive.”
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It’s not just his own head coach that has backed Hunt, however, with the All Blacks selectors also praising Hunt’s improvement throughout 2020 – despite not always playing at No 10.
Ahead of last year’s North v South match, Hunt was named in the North Island squad (which raised a few eyebrows, given the limited amount of time that he had spent living on said island), indicating the respect that the national selectors had for the utility back.
“Ian Foster gave me a call and said at the start of last year I wasn’t on the radar,” Hunt said. “But because of the season that I had in 2020, I was rewarded with that North v South game and a position on that radar.
“The feedback was to keep going and build on what I had been doing. It didn’t go much deeper than that because I’m not directly in that All Blacks frame, but to be rewarded like that is great for the confidence.”
Hunt admitted he was “pretty nervous” making the shift from the Crusaders to the Highlanders, but quickly realised he had little to worry about – and given the massive strides he’s taken over the past year, it appears that the 25-year-old is fitting right in with his new teammates.
Hunt will wear jersey No 22 in Sunday’s match with the Blues at Eden Park. The game kicks off at 3:35pm NZT and will be broadcast on RugbyPass for subscribers who hold a Super Rugby Aotearoa season pass.
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