The amazing transformation of NRL’s biggest punching bag
It's been the $1.2 million question ever since Ben Hunt became a Dragon, but coach Anthony Griffin might have finally landed on the secret of getting the best out of the Queensland Origin playmaker.
After a nomadic season in 2020, where he switched between halfback, five-eighth and hooker, Hunt has settled back in at the scrumbase while also assuming the captaincy and the results have been spectacular.
Hunt has five try assists, a try, a line break and five line break assists in his two matches - compare that to his totals from the entirety of last year (one try, eight try assists, five line breaks and 10 line break assists) and it's clear Hunt is thriving with extra authority.
Watch The 2021 NRL Telstra Premiership Live & On-Demand with No Ad-Breaks During Play. New to Kayo? Try 14-Days Free Now >
"I think the extra responsibility has done him a world of good," said halves partner Corey Norman. "He's going to step up and take that role and you could see that on the weekend, he was the best player on the field.
"We all believe in Benny."
Norman made his return from a one-match suspension against the Cowboys and will again line up alongside Hunt on Friday night against the Sea Eagles.
In fact, the Dragons will have the same spine for the second week in a row - that might not seem like much of a milestone but Hunt hasn't had that kind of stability for some time.
The last time Hunt played halfback and had the same fullback, hooker and five-eighth for two consecutive matches was Rounds 21 and 22 of 2019 and the increased stability should do him - and the team - a world of good.
There was a school of thought the captaincy might only add to the pressure on Hunt, who is so often a popular punching bag when the Dragons fail to live up to expectations.
But instead, becoming the team's focal point has empowered the former Bronco.
"Apart from him walking around with his chest out a little bit further, he's not really changed," Tariq Sims said.
"The way he took the game head-on on the weekend, it was really nice to see the captain do that and take the line on. That's Benny's strongest point, his running game.
"He's a really down-to-earth guy, he understands his role, what he needs to do for the team and he's always going to put the team first no matter what."
It remains to be seen if Hunt's form can unlock the best of Norman, who had some nice touches against the Cowboys without matching his teammate's dominance.
Norman finds himself in an unfamiliar position - for the first time, the 30-year old is playing for his NRL future.
If Hunt's form continues it will surely be of benefit to Norman and go a long way towards securing him another deal, be it with the Dragons or elsewhere.
"It's probably the first time I've ever been off-contract, so it's a different feeling, but I know what I need to do," Norman said. "I know I need a good year. It doesn't really play on my mind, I've known about it for a while now.
"I'm old enough to know my footy will sort that out. Me and Hook (Griffin) haven't spoken about a contract."
Originally published as The amazing transformation of NRL's biggest punching bag