Karmichael Hunt – boom or bust?
It’s been reported that the three-time code-hopper is close to re-signing with the Queensland Reds and the ARU for an additional two years, an extension that will secure Hunt until the 2019 Rugby World Cup. At 30 years old, Hunt’s career is in the twilight stages after stints in the NRL, AFL, and Super Rugby – but should the Reds think twice before bringing him back?
High Risk, High Reward
The original Hunt deal in late 2014 was a splash signing made by Reds to secure a code swapping ‘superstar’, going all-in to maintain the Reds momentum since capturing the 2011 Super Rugby title. The 2015 roster still had a large swathe of the 2011 title team intact. Along with another glamour signing in James O’Connor, this looked like the best Reds team ever. Hunt, who enjoyed a high level of success in the NRL, would seemingly be a great addition.
A key driver in this contract must have been the successful transition of Israel Folau the year before, who took rugby by storm immediately and became a global superstar. The Reds must have had visions of similar success.
It never materialised. Not even close. And looking back it was unlikely to happen for a multitude of reasons.
In comparison to the other big code-swap signing at the same time, Israel Folau going to the Waratahs, the Hunt deal was far more of a risk. Hunt was 28 years old during his first year of professional rugby compared with a much younger Folau, who was 24. Folau was entering his peak years as an athlete, whereas Hunt was nearly at the end of his. The Reds expected Hunt to play a key tactical position, whereas Folau was able to get by on more natural athletic talent as he learned more about the game.
At the time of the deal, it was reported that the Reds would have to cover the full contract of an estimated $600,000 per season – with no ARU top-up to secure Hunt.
The sheer size of the contract increased the risk/reward paradigm dramatically. In order to justify the deal, the return needed to be on the same level (if not more than Folau), yet Hunt was about to make a much more difficult transition into a key tactical position at fullback.
For a cash-strapped union, that size of commitment put Hunt into the upper echelon of contracted players. On that kind of money, exceptional performance is required from day one with minimal-to-no leeway for ‘finding your feet’.
An almost impossible task stood in front of Hunt. This was a high-risk high-stakes contract the Reds had gambled on.
Destined to fail – Wrong place, wrong time
Unfortunately for Hunt, the ship he jumped onto was losing steam and heading in the wrong direction. The Reds golden era that had been built by coach Ewan McKenzie was nosediving fast under the stewardship of Richard Graham. The team had gone from fifth to 13th in the space of a season, finishing 2014 with a 5-11 record.
The forward-orientated, conservative and often directionless style of play under Graham’s coaching would not allow Hunt to make any sort of impact, let alone match Folau’s success.
When the playmaker and central attacking cog on the team, Quade Cooper, went down with a pre-season injury before the 2015 season, it lowered Hunt’s chances of a boom transition to almost zero. He was thrown in to play first five-eighth, in a code he hadn’t played since he was 17.
Hunt became embroiled in an off-field cocaine scandal shortly after the first game of the season, leading to a six-week suspension. He missed valuable game time and didn’t return until round eight, guaranteeing the first season would be a complete write-off.
Surprisingly, the Reds did not use this unforeseen development to back out of the deal.
One of the problems that became apparent when he returned to action was what position Hunt would actually play, given that the first five-eighth experiment fell apart almost immediately. On returning from his suspension, he was moved into the midfield before ending the year as a fullback in the NRC. The chopping and changing further hindered his development, and it soon became apparent he wasn’t able to star in any position.
His first season of Super Rugby netted one clean break, one try assist, zero tries, eight defenders beaten and 193 total running metres.
“No one’s ever doubted the quality of footballer [he is], but changing codes and particularly coming from AFL after five years, there was always going to be a transition” – coach Richard Graham was quoted after the season. It begs the question then, why would you pay a top-level contract for a development player?
Hunt’s first season of rugby was a case of Murphy’s Law for the Reds, everything that could go wrong did and made the investment in Hunt a poor one.
The downward spiral of the Reds reached a tipping point when, just two games into the 2016 season, Graham was sacked. Instability at the franchise was clear and Hunt was stuck in the middle of it, trying to learn the game at the highest level at the same time as playing it.
The coach that had heavily recruited Hunt was now gone, along with experienced players such as Will Genia and Quade Cooper. Hunt’s on-field performance improved slightly with regular game time at fullback but the Reds were poor without an established playmaker, finishing the 2016 season in 15th place with a record of 3-1-11.
Despite another coaching change in the offseason (the removal of interim co-head coach Matt O’Connor and promotion of Nic Stiles), the 2017 season offered Hunt’s best chance of success at Super Rugby, with Cooper returning and Hunt having a full season at fullback under his belt.
His performances improved enough in 2017 to earn a Wallabies call-up. Hunt was beginning to show signs that he could live up to the contract given to him, and show that he could potentially be a force in Super Rugby.
He registered seven line breaks, 10 line break assists, four try assists and three tries on the season – moderate numbers but a marked improvement from the first season.
However, the $1.8 million investment in Hunt is now a very large sunk cost for Reds. The massive gamble hasn’t paid off as the Reds had hoped, and for Hunt it ended up being a bad career move putting himself in a situation where he was set up to fail. It’s only now three years later that Hunt is showing glimpses of hope, but the cheques have already been cashed.
Karmichael Hunt will be 31 years of age when the next season starts. How will he hold up when the inevitable decline in physical traits creeps in? Can he add more in attack as a playmaker to compensate?
The problem for the Reds is the lack of depth at fullback in their system with no apparent heir ready, which adds weight to the argument for keeping Hunt around. Jayden Ngamanu is a legitimate future long-term option that they could blood now and give experience but will require patience.
The Reds have invested a lot of time into their young talent that will command contract upgrades in the coming seasons: Duncan Paia’aua, Izaia Perese, James Tuttle, Taniela Tupou etc. Letting go of Hunt can free up resources to ensure that the next generation stays.
Dane Haylett-Petty’s decision to join the Rebels was a missed opportunity but presents another; the young Rebels fullback Jack Maddocks now won’t see much playing time and comes off contract at the end of next season. Maddocks was a standout for the Australia u20’s last year, mainly for his performances against the New Zealand side who went on to win the Junior World Cup. Maddocks has way more upside and would be a lot cheaper.
The Reds won’t be competing for a title anytime soon, letting go of Hunt will give them more options in rebuilding around the next generation of core players. The Reds should be wary of what price Hunt will cost, even a 50 percent pay cut would still be a significant contract.
Re-signing Hunt for another two years is fool’s gold.