AFL will rue Hunt switch while NRL marches on

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Queenslanders Scott Prince (left) and Karmichael Hunt (centre) embrace after the final whistle of the NRL State of Origin match between Queensland and New South Wales at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, Wednesday, June 11, 2008. AAP Image/Dave Hunt

Queenslanders Scott Prince (left) and Karmichael Hunt (centre) embrace after the final whistle of the NRL State of Origin match between Queensland and New South Wales at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, Wednesday, June 11, 2008. AAP Image/Dave Hunt

It was described as a coup, the “biggest shot” fired yet in AFL’s battle with the NRL. If so, that shot fired by the AFL – its signing of Karmichael Hunt – was a shot fired at its own foot.

Despite hysterical reporting that Hunt’s switch from rugby league to the Victorian game is cause for concern for the NRL, it’s the AFL that should be most worried. In Hunt, the AFL inherits huge risk – on and off-the-field – with few likely benefits, while recent history shows the NRL marches on from player defections.

Gold Coast AFL officials were quick to say Hunt hadn’t been signed as a publicity stunt. Hopefully that’s true, because if Hunt was signed to create buzz for the new franchise and generate more support, the AFL has chosen the wrong player.

The risk for the AFL in signing Hunt was best summed up by

href=”http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/sport/nrl/karmichael-hunt-comes-with-baggage/story-e6frext9-1225756073626″> Andrew Webster

in the Daily Telegraph. Hunt was involved in a major off-field incident last year, along with Sam Thaiday and Darius Boyd, which derailed the Broncos finals campaign. He was also part of the Queensland squad embroiled in drug-taking dramas before State of Origin 3.

Hunt has had a reputation for being a party boy of Brisbane. Considering Andrew Demetriou’s recent attempt to claim the moral high-ground over rugby league’s handling of on-field violence, his willingness to sign a player with considerable poor off-field form looks pretty strange.

Look at the contrast. Gold Coast’s new rugby league franchise – the Titans – first signed players were Preston Campbell and Scott Prince – two players at the top of their games, and who the public relate to and trust. Campbell and Prince have since proved themselves to be outstanding citizens and family-orientated people, and set the standard for the new club.

Gold Coast Titans CEO Michael Searle confirmed their impact: “The first person we recruited was Preston Campbell, and as soon as you say that, you set the culture for the club. What has this recruitment done – when, no offence to Karmichael, but they concentrate their recruitment on a gun for hire, a mercenary.”

In Australia’s cut-throat sporting market, positive players such as Campbell and Price are like gold, and crucial to rugby league success – and hopefully AFL’s demise – on the Gold Coast.

At the moment Hunt is rated below fullbacks Brett Stewart, Billy Slater, Jarryd Hayne and Kurt Gidley. As a crowd-pleaser he is perhaps behind Campbell, Matt Bowen, and the returning Anthony Minichiello. In terms of commitment and whole-heartedness, he falls behind elusive Kiwi Sam Perrett and Luke Patten, a player getting better with age.

So who should the AFL have targeted? Rugby League and AFL are completely different sports – for those that call the latter a sport – and demand different skill sets. The two rugby league players best suited to the AFL game are Darren Lockyer and Jamie Soward. Both players glide around the field, have a sharp kicking game and solid hands. They would thrive in the mid-field. Lockyer played AFL as a youngster and former rugby league coach Phil Gould believes Soward to be the most similar to Lockyer, but with added acting ability.

Hunt will have to get used to lower standards in the AFL. Fortunately for many AFL players, you don’t have to fully catch the ball when taking a mark in the southern code (unlike taking catches in cricket).

Players who you miss the goal target are also rewarded with a point – something not available to league goalkickers such as Hazem El Masri and Johnathan Thurston.

I’m not an avid AFL watcher, but of all the players I’ve seen the one that most resembled a rugby league player was former Sydney Swans captain Paul Kelly. It’s no surprise to know he played both sports in his younger days in the Riverina.

Hailing from the same town as Kelly was former Canterbury and Australian Test fullback Greg Brentnall. Brentnall – who was close to the famous Mortimers – was actively courted by two VFL clubs before deciding to join Canterbury in 1977.

Brentnall’s style as a rugby league player offered glimpses of the Victorian game. It was clear he used skills gained playing Aussie Rules during his league career. Brentnall possessed the best kicking game in his era, and was the first kicker to experiment with the banana kick. He was also a fantastic jumper for the ball.

Commenting on Hunt, Brentnall said, “It’s a huge risk. AFL’s changed a lot from when I was involved. It’s certainly a lot more sanitised, it’s a possession game. That’s where it’s a bit more of a risk because of the kicking skills in particular.

“Whilst our kicking skills have evolved over the last 10 years or so, they have to hit a target every time. When I was playing AFL you’d kick to a contest, but now you’ve got to kick to a target. You can’t just kick to a contest because the game is so much about possession.

“He’s got the attributes that would indicate he’s got what it takes to make the level, but I don’t know whether I’d be hanging my hat on him, and building the club around him.”

NRL CEO David Gallop described Hunt’s decision to join AFL as a personal one, and not a reflection on the game. He would never say so publicly, but he is probably happy Hunt is going. In his article Webster suggested the Broncos too would be relieved to see the back of an off-field headache.

Gold Coast Titans CEO Michael Searle was scathing, but accurate, in his analysis of the signing. “It reeks of desperation if you’ve got to recruit a rugby league player to play AFL.

“Now the monster’s out of the bag, they’re not going to be able to put it back in, and they’ve paid top dollar to do it. It’s the worst decision they could have made. Rest assured, the Gold Coast region won’t tolerate a circus.”

“It could be the most expensive media stunt in the history of sport. If the AFL have got to recruit rugby league players, geez they’re in trouble.”

Worse still for the AFL, its expensive publicity will barely affect the NRL. Hunt may attract certain supporter elements to AFL, but the NRL wont shed a tear about that.

Rugby league has also shown itself to be resilient to raids from other codes. Despite the ARU’s raid on rugby league in 2001-02, most of those players have found their way back to rugby league and it has widely been reported rugby union paid a heavy financial price for little value.

Some credit must go to Hunt who unlike Willie Mason – who has talked endlessly about switches to boxing, rugby union and NFL – has followed through.

But the desire of the man – who the AFL is building its Gold Coast franchise dreams on – to play so many different codes in such a short period of time brings its own set of problems for the AFL.

After rugby league and rugby union in 2010 and AFL in 2011, what will be next for Karmichael Hunt?

In Edition 16 of Discord this week, Rleague.com weekly feature columnist Steve Mascord says the ARL must act tough against clubs that won’t make players available for Test selection, he looks at rule changes to govern on-field fights, touches on Karmichael Hunt’s code switch and signs off with a crack at the RLIF’s planning ability. You can read Discord by clicking here. Matthew O’Neill is a Director and Columnist with www.rleague.com.

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