A former NRL superstar and tri-code athlete will make his Super Rugby debut on Friday with the eyes of the rugby world on him.
Forget Israel Folau, Sam Burgess and Sonny Bill Williams. The latest rugby league convert to catch the eye is Karmichael Hunt, better known as ‘K’. On Friday Hunt will attempt to conquer his third sport after stints in the NRL and Aussie Rules. The man, who’s been dubbed by some as the greatest all-round footballer Australia has ever produced, is no rugby novice either. He was a schoolboy star in Queensland’s GPS competition, winning the state’s award as the best high school player, before joining NRL side the Brisbane Broncos. He then played 15 games for Biarritz in a short spell in 2009-2010, helping them to the Heineken Cup final and scoring the only try in their two-point loss. Now five years later he is back in rugby, this time with the Queensland Reds, and is keen to conquer another code once again.
Going from rugby league to rugby union to AFL, and then back to rugby union, is not for the faint-hearted but Hunt is not one to walk away from a challenge. “I am enjoying it,” he says. “I’m familiar with the game. My body’s enjoying the downed load of kilometres as well, the training hasn’t been as long or as intense as you get with an AFL pre-season. It’s been nice.”
Like Folau, Hunt originally made his name in the NRL. The full-back scored 53 tries in 125 games for the Broncos over six seasons, and then earned selection for Australia and Queensland three years after his debut. Born in Auckland to parents of Samoan and Cook Islands heritage, Hunt moved to Australia at the age of 11. Eligible to represent both New Zealand and Australia, he chose the green and gold path and made 11 appearances for the Kangaroos and 10 for Queensland in State of Origin.
Hunt made his big-money switch to AFL in 2010 but looks back fondly at his time in France: “It was probably more of a holiday than anything. The nine months or so I was there we played some pretty good football. It was definitely an eye-opener, French rugby, from the perspective of how things are run and how things are played. We made a Heineken Cup final but obviously went down to Toulouse in Paris but it was a great experience. I guess to see the passion from the Biarritz township, just going back having lost, the numbers that turned in the streets for our parade was an eye-opener for me to just know how much rugby meant to them.”
Hunt’s four-year stint in Aussies Rules received mixed reviews but he has no regrets about leaving that code. “It was everything that I wanted, it was everything that I expected,” the 28-year old says. “Now I’m at the next stage of my career where I’ve come back to a game that I’m familiar with. With the Queensland Reds, it’s good to be home. We want some success, obviously they had a down year last year.”
The Reds endured a dire 2014 Super Rugby campaign, managing just five wins and finishing third from the bottom. But this year they’ve recruited strongly, Hunt one of a number of high-profile additions including Wallaby James O’Connor, All Black Adam Thomson and Japanese international Hendrik Tui. With Hunt and O’Connor joining a backline that already includes Wallabies Quade Cooper, Lachlan Turner, Chris Feauai-Sautia, Ben Tapuai, Anthony Fainga’a and Will Genia, excitement is growing in the Reds ranks.
“We want to win,” Hunt declares. “But it’s a long road ahead. Thirteenth last year was not acceptable by anyone’s standards at the Reds. We’ve recruited well this year; we’ve got some fresh faces in the group. We’re trying to expand our game plan moving forward. We want to win games and play finals at the end of the year, but we’re under no illusions how hard that’s going to be.”
The Reds have already hit a snag with the loss Cooper with a fractured collarbone until the end of April. That has led to questions over who will take over the five-eighth role in his absence, with the contenders including O’Connor, rookie Duncan Paia’aua and one Karmichael Neil Matthew Hunt. The Reds vice-captain has been training mostly at full-back in pre-season but has been called up to wear handle the No 10 jumper for their opener. “I played full-back at school, I played a bit of 10, I played centre,” Hunt admits. “In my time in France I played 10 and 13. So I’m pretty accustomed to most roles in the backline.”
Hunt impressed in a recent trial playing five-eighth against the Crusaders, leading Queensland to a 28-0 half-time lead. Hunt will be ready. A strong defender and explosive ball-runner who can both score and create tries, the convert will be an asset at No 10. Already he is being tipped for international honours later this year. “That’s definitely a goal,” Hunt admits. “But it’s not at the forefront of my mind. The football that I play at the Reds is going to determine if I’m going to be there at the end of the year so that’s my primary focus and my only focus to be honest. It’s a long way away.”
A Wallaby backline featuring Hunt and Folau would be an awesome sight indeed. The two backs have been team-mates in rugby league before, to devastating affect, and this year’s World Cup could seem them reunite once more. “It’d be nice to play with him again,” Hunt says. “We had some time together in Origin and time at the Broncos for the last couple of years that he was there. We’re definitely familiar with each other; we’ve had some battles on the AFL field as well. If that would the case at the end of the year, that would be great.”