SPECIAL K REVISITED

By Steve Ricketts, former Courier-Mail chief rugby league writer.

‘Touched’, a Broncos’ fan yelled sarcastically, as Karmichael Hunt barely got a hand to rampaging South Sydney centre, Campbell Graham, in Brisbane’s humiliating 46-0 loss at Suncorp Stadium on June 17, 2021, in a round 15 NRL fixture.

Up until this miss in the second half, Hunt had been tackling well, and his positional play, in defence, could not be questioned.

I was watching the match, sitting alongside my wife, Marie in the ‘southern stand’, a paying spectator, watching Karmichael play, in the flesh, for the first time since 2009.

After the 2009 NRL season, he carved out new careers in French rugby union, Australian rules and Australian Rugby Union.

As chief rugby league writer for ‘The Courier-Mail’, I covered Special K’s debut for the Broncos, against New Zealand Warriors at Suncorp Stadium on March 14, 2004, when he was just 17.

Everyone in the media box thought he would start on the wing, but he was at fullback, with Darren Lockyer moving to five eighth.

Lockyer went well, while Hunt played strongly in the steamy conditions, running the ball back fearlessly, something that would become a trademark of his career.  As you can imagine, Karmichael was the big story all week back in 2004, and was never far from the spotlight after that, being named Rookie of the Year, and then earning selection in the Queensland State of Origin side and Australian Test team in 2006.

I covered his league career from start to finish, and marvelled at his courage and professionalism. He remained polite and respectful, even when things went pear shaped, such as the time he was hit with a $80,000 fine by the Broncos in 2008, for a breach of the club’s code of conduct. He had been involved in a night club incident with teammates, Sam Thaiday and Darius Boyd, who were fined $40,000 and $20,000 respectively.

The following season was his last in the NRL, before his code switch. For the first time, the Broncos went into a season without Wayne Bennett as coach, with Bennett, who felt he was forced out the door, having signed with St George Illawarra for 2009. Ivan Henjak was the new Broncos’ coach.

In an interview with Peter Badel, my successor as chief league writer at ‘The Courier-Mail’, Bennett said Hunt should never have been lost to the Broncos.

“I’m so pleased Karmichael is back”, Bennett said on the eve of Hunt’s return to the NRL, against the Raiders in Canberra on June 12.

“The truth is he should never have been lost to the Broncos. Karmichael should have been their next captain and a Bronco for life, absolutely. If I never left the Broncos (at the end of 2008), Karmichael never would have left.”  

When he returned to rugby league this season, with Souths Logan in Queensland’s Intrust Super Cup, I was dubious, but something Magpies’ chief executive, Jim McClelland told me made me think ‘K’ was returning to his first code for the right reasons, and would be a good signing, at least at Davies Park.

McClelland had former players present jerseys to the current crop at a pre-season function at Souths Leagues, with former Test fullback, Frank Drake doing the honours with Karmichael.

The Souths’ players were asked to do their research on the ‘old timers’, so they could understand the significance of the presentation.

Karmichael did his homework, and spoke with respect about Drake, who had made his first grade debut with Balmain in 1958, aged 19. Drake went on to play two Tests for Australia and 21 matches for Queensland. Drake joined Souths in Brisbane from Toowoomba in 1961, and toured New Zealand that year, scoring three tries in a match against Wellington, and two against Taranaki, before making his Test debut at Auckland’s Carlaw Park. His other Test was against Great Britain in Sydney in 1962.

Hunt played 11 Tests for Australia, after being courted by the Kiwis, given he was born ‘across the ditch’. He played 10 Origin matches for the Maroons.

McClelland said Hunt arrived half an hour before anyone else for training at Souths in the pre-season, and stayed back afterwards to work with the halves.

When I went to Suncorp on June 17, more than 17 years after I saw Karmichael make his first-grade debut, I was hoping he wouldn’t make a fool of himself, but he went about his job in a professional manner, and was always trying to rally teammates. He didn’t do as much with the ball as I would have expected, given he wore the number 6 jersey. But this was a stop start game, in which the Broncos never got into any sort of rhythm. There were so many stoppages for injuries; video reviews, and conversion attempts, I can’t see how any of the players could argue the game was too fast.

Hunt’s miss on 21-year-old, lanky Campbell Graham was a result of Hunt moving in too quickly for the tackle, but credit must be given to Graham, a Coogee junior, for an instinctive piece of evasion, which led to one of his two tries. There is nothing quite like youth, as a 17-year-old Hunt would have attested all those years ago.

The next step, is a progression into the coaching ranks, when Hunt will again be one of the young ones.

Karmichael Hunt in his debut season

Frank Drake (bottom right) with other members of the 1962 Australian squad at Jack Evans Pet Porpoise Pool, Tweed Heads. On Drake’s right is Ken Irvine, while at the rear are (from left) Mick Veivers, Reg Gasnier and coach, Harry Bath.

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