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‘Our own worst enemy’: Why Highlanders star took defeats ‘personally’

By Finn Morton
(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Highlanders playmaker Mitch Hunt has opened up about how he felt after being dropped for Freddie Burns, and why a return to fullback lifted a “weight off the shoulders.”

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For a majority of this year’s Super Rugby Pacific season, Hunt was tasked with leading the Highlanders’ attack around the park.

Injuries to former England pivot Freddie Burns and cult hero Marty Banks saw Hunt emerge as the clear first-choice flyhalf for the proud franchise from the deep south.

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Rising star Cameron Millar was another option for the Highlanders this season, and the Otago flyhalf made some promising cameos off the bench in Burns’ absence.

Hunt started seven of the Highlanders first eight matches in the No. 10 jersey, with his one appearance off the bench coming against south island rivals the Crusaders in Super Round.

But the results weren’t there. The Landers had lost four of their matches with Hunt at the playmaking helm, which included defeats to the Western Force and Waratahs.

Eventually, something had to change.

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Speaking with RugbyPass in the leadup to what ended up being the Highlanders’ final match of the season against the Blues last Friday, Hunt said he took those defeats “personally.”

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“From our group, we’ve been out own worst enemies through the year,” Hunt said.

“We’ve had a couple of performances, obviously at the start they were blowout performances. Through the middle we’ve been a little bit disappointed in our group’s performance in general.

“We’ve been our own worst enemy in a lot of things, small moments or errors compounding or errors against us have been really our killer for the large majority.

“That’s probably what’s hurt the most when some of the Kiwi teams when we did face (them), we actually played really well.

“It obviously hurts as a 10, you sort of get looked to first and is it our fault for not controlling (the game), poor kicking or decision making?

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“You always look to yourself first and personally I have high standards of myself and you do take those losses hard or personally.

“Maybe that’s my personality but you do take it, you do take it hard.

“But as a team in general we probably haven’t quite fulfilled our potential as well.”

With their season on the line, Highlanders coach Clarke Dermody decided to go in another direction with Freddie Burns returning from a lengthy stint on the sidelines.

Hunt was relegated to the bench for the Landers’ clash with the ladder-leading Chiefs in Hamilton, and retained his spot in the No. 22 jumper the following week.

The 27-year-old only played five minutes during the tough 48-32 loss to the Brumbies at Canberra’ GIO Stadium, and was back on the bench the following week against the Rebels.

But Hunt returned to the run-on side to play the Reds.

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Running out at fullback for the first time this season, Hunt was able to play with more “freedom” and time during the thrilling win at Forsyth Barr Stadium – lifting “weight off the shoulders” for the utility back.

“From the coaches point (of view), potentially just wanted to try something else with Fred, get him in and see if that changed,” he added.

“We struggled the last couple of weeks before that and I guess adding me to the group potentially just chucks that other playmaker element on with Fred as well.

“Someone that understands the game and the gameplan, and can potentially go and help.

“I guess at fullback I’m not the most x-factor guy who’s going to be out there at fullback, but I believe I’ve got a pretty good game IQ so I guess my injection was trying to be that second pair of eyes for Fred.

“I don’t mind getting out to fullback, it takes a little bit of weight off the shoulders sometimes as that direct game driver. You feel like you have that little bit of freedom.”

Earlier this year, the Highlanders turned some heads when they announced that they’d signed Leicester Tigers pivot Freddie Burns for the 2023 season.

But, in the words of Mitch Hunt, the Highlanders “had to look for someone.”

“I understand the decision from the club’s perspective to have someone with experience come in and help the club.

“It’s been good having him, I’ve actually learned a lot off him.

“I don’t think it was confidence damaging, it was probably necessary to happen. The way it’s gone, it is what it’s been.”

The Highlanders’ season came to a tough end last weekend following a bonus point loss to the Blues in Auckland.

Needing three other results to go their way, the Fijian Drua ended up breaking the hearts of Highlanders’ supporters with a convincing win over the Reds.

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