What Ben Hunt's deal with the Dragons means
BEN Hunt has just scored one of the richest contracts in NRL history - with major repercussions.
His switch from the Brisbane Broncos to the St George Illawarra Dragons is reportedly for $6 million over five seasons, with a one-year option.
The spin-off effects are extensive - so we've tackled five burning questions on what the mega-deal means for Hunt, the Broncos, the Dragons and other big-name players.
WHAT DOES THIS CONTRACT MEAN FOR HUNT?
The obvious one: Hunt is now a wealthy man, with a secured future.
His new contract puts him alongside the NRL's biggest earners and names - the likes of Johnathan Thurston, Cameron Smith, Jarryd Hayne, Billy Slater, Daly Cherry-Evans, Sam Burgess and Greg Inglis. It is not unkind, merely factual, to say that his CV is light-on compared to those superstars, so the challenge is now there to produce $1 million per-season form.
Hunt has already represented Australia but not Queensland (he was banned in 2016 after the Emerging Maroons camp incident). The next steps on the way to superstardom are claiming those rep jerseys as a regular starting player, and also trying to nail a maiden premiership.
The last point may prove his most difficult challenge. By making this switch, Hunt is trading one of the NRL's best teams for one of its worst, currently far from a title contender. He has been earmarked by the Dragons as the player around whom they can rebuild and he will bear the immense pressure of that tag - at one of rugby league's most famous and demanding clubs, with an extremely restless fanbase.
The impact on Hunt's representative claims will be interesting, as players generally suffer a downturn in selections fortunes when they play in struggling teams. The onus on Hunt - whose fellow fringe players include Michael Morgan, Anthony Milford, Daly Cherry-Evans and Ash Taylor - will be to produce an absolutely outstanding 2017 season, given it is the last year Thurston will play rep footy, while Cooper Cronk is 33.
Next season, he'll potentially get a Test-standard halves partner in Gareth Widdop (dependent on the off-contract five-eighth re-signing) but less-than-outstanding cattle elsewhere, barring Tyson Frizell and Josh Dugan. How he will fare behind a weaker forward pack will be interesting, while his ability to act as a recruitment drawcard is another of his new challenges.
Also, the coach. Paul McGregor is under enormous pressure to hold his job and it would be no surprise if Hunt arrived to play under a different Dragons coach than the one he just signed for.
Can Hunt actually produce a bumper 2017 in the crucial No.7 jersey, with one foot out the door? The temptation is always to think 'no' but recent examples have proven otherwise.
Burgess famously announced that he was headed to rugby union before the 2014 season, only to dominate for the Rabbitohs and produce the most inspirational grand final-winning performance of his generation. Wandering star James Maloney infamously announced in late 2011 that he was leaving the Warriors for the Roosters, 460 days before he would pull on a Tri-colours jersey - yet was still a strong performer for New Zealand, albeit in a poor 2012 season.
While Hunt had a slow start to last season, coming off his grand final nightmare, there is no reason he can't star for the Broncos this season if he takes the same pragmatic and professional approach. It will be interesting to see if other factors, such as James Roberts' latest ongoing scandal, exacerbate any tensions around Hunt's defection and drag the Broncos down.
One thing that is no longer a factor is the infamous 'Round 13 rule', which used to let clubs work away on defecting players in an attempt to coerce them to renege on a signed rival deal. That rule was scrapped and replaced with a 10-day cooling-off period after Cherry-Evans backflipped on the Titans to stay at Manly, so the Hunt deal will not become a similar circus.
The positive to come from Hunt's early decision is that the Broncos can now move on the remainder of their off-contract talent - of which there was plenty. Brisbane entered this season with the immense task of juggling 14 regular NRL players, worth about $6 million.
The names included Anthony Milford, Darius Boyd, Adam Blair, Josh McGuire, Alex Glenn, Ben Hunt, Andrew McCullough and Corey Oates. Not having to pay Hunt the best part of $1 million means they can make Milford priority No.1, while also locking up the rest of their spine in Boyd and McCullough, plus Test and Origin prop Josh McGuire.
The lingering issue here, and not just for the Broncos, is that the NRL has not decided what the $7 million salary cap of 2017 will rise to for 2018, making contract negotiations difficult.
After all this, of course, the Broncos still have the greatest coach in history to hold everything together. If anyone can handle the tumult, it's seven-time premiership winner Wayne Bennett.
WHAT DOES IT MEANS FOR OTHER BRONCOS STARS?
The biggest winner of Hunt moving on, from a dollars perspective, is Milford.
He was the playmaker that Brisbane most wanted to keep, knowing they would struggle to hold both he and Hunt. The former Raiders ace is now in a position to earn a genuine marquee deal - likely beyond that of Hunt, at perhaps $1.5 million per season should his brilliance hold firm in 2017. He is also has the chance to make the Broncos, the NRL's biggest club, 'his' team.
Further, Milford will be making a big push for his maiden Queensland and Australian rep selections this season and if he outdoes Hunt in that area, by staying at Brisbane he will have the more reliable base from which to push those claims in the post-Thurston era.
Young utility Kodi Nikorima is one to watch this season. The New Zealand Test player is now very much on audition for a permanent spot in the Broncos halves. Still just 22, he's a fine talent who is contracted through 2018 and could convince the Broncos not to splash out on another established playmaker should he shine in his 2017 opportunities.
One man who could play a role there is Benji Marshall, whose shock signing by the Broncos is looking more valuable by the day. His mentoring of Milford and Nikorima could prove invaluable, especially if any potential action against the troubled Roberts opens the door for the veteran to start.
There remains some question marks over that - Marshall is being touted to play centre, which his vastly-improved yet still mediocre defence may not handle.
Another left-field option (or perhaps it's not) would be to move Boyd to five-eighth, something Bennett has long pondered. Boyd has shown excellent third-playmaker skills over many seasons as a fullback and at age 29, could have a crack at the Darren Lockyer-like move. It may ultimately depend on whether Bennett is happy with alternative halves options.
The next spin-off from that is getting another fullback. The Broncos signed David Mead, who was excellent for the Titans at No.1, on a bargain-basement one-season deal for 2017 and he could stick around if his form is strong.
Jordan Kahu is another wholly legitimate option, having just played fullback for New Zealand in the Four Nations final, scoring the Kiwis' only two tries in a loss against Australia.
WHICH REPLACEMENT HALVES COULD THE BRONCOS CHASE?
Inevitably, names are already being thrown up and they have a 'big brother picking on little brother' theme.
Young Titans stars Ash Taylor and Kane Elgey were immediately thrown into speculations, though both are contracted until the end of 2018. That may not dissuade the Broncos yet would leave them with a hole next season.
Other off-contract NRL halves/utilities include Josh Reynolds, Jack Bird, Shaun Johnson, Kieran Foran, Jeff Robson, Luke Brooks and Mitchell Moses. It isn't known if any of those options appeal to the Broncos, though Moses appears to be coming into his own as a playmaker and the Tigers are currently trying to work out how to keep him, Brooks, James Tedesco and Aaron Woods on the books, with all off-contract.
As mentioned, Nikorima and Boyd are in-house possibilities to fill a halves position. Should it be Boyd, which is a big if given he's the current Queensland and Australian fullback, that instead brings the Broncos into the market for a No.1.
Off-contract fullbacks/utilities include Boyd himself (he's going nowhere), Tedesco, Bird, Will Hopoate, Ben Barba (!), Valentine Holmes, William Zillman, Billy Slater, Tui Lolohea, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Alex Johnston and Josh Dugan.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR THE DRAGONS?
Make no mistake, especially after pre-season injury dramas: The Dragons are in a hole, despite scraping up to 11th spot in 2016. This is a massive signing to help them begin the climb out, with 2017 likely to be a holding-pattern deal. The TAB currently has St George Illawarra second-last in premiership betting ahead of only dismal Newcastle, with a fat $67 on offer for a grand final win, with their 2010 triumph barely a distant memory.
On a petty note, which may appeal to some Dragons fans, this is a whack for former coach Bennett - the premiership drought-breaker but also the man who did no future planning and left the club with a savage title hangover.
It's the least of the Red V's worries. They now (potentially) have a marquee halves combination with two Test players in Hunt and Widdop and it should be the start of a resurgence, a serious upgrade from this season, in which journeyman Josh McCrone will likely start in the halves.
Yet even the dynamics there are interesting. Widdop, remember, left Melbourne because he wanted to be the No.1 man on a team - a position Hunt has just usurped. Who pulls rank calling for the ball? Or can they work it out and thrive together?
With Widdop off-contract, and persistent rumours he may seek a rich move back to the Super League, the Dragons have a big call to make. They can either try to keep him, in an upgrade on his current reported deal of $550,000 per season, or let him exit and go all-in on Hunt; while McCrone and injured young gun Drew Hutchison are also off-contract considerations. With an eye to the future, the Dragons last year extended the contract of outstanding young half Jai Field for another three seasons.
And is Hunt a player who can inspire other recruitments? Only time will tell. If he catches fire this season he could potentially sway other off-contract players towards the Saints, while you'd expect him to take a little time warming to his task in 2018, needing to get used to new teammates and put his stamp on the team.
That's that scariest part for the Dragons. By committing to at least five years, they have just staked their future on Hunt, most famous (harshly) for dropping that golden point kick-off in the 2015 grand final and handing the Cowboys a premiership. A poor start will give them serious jitters and at age 26, Hunt is not entirely a flinty veteran immune from pressure.
As Hunt battled early last season, there were plenty of suggestions that mental scars had lingered from that nightmare moment. Even where there is no such damage, Cherry-Evans found the going much tougher as the mega-bucks marquee man at Manly last season, despite having already won a premiership with the club.
Which highlights an issue. The Sea Eagles forwards didn't really aim up for DCE last season and there are no great raps on the Dragons' pack, with obvious exceptions. They will need to either lift enormously to give Hunt the chance to shine, or the club will need to make forward signings a priority.
What's the big picture? With this sort of outlay for what seems an excellent player, the Dragons would want to be back in the finals no later than 2019, which would be a four-year gap from their last appearance in 2015; while they'd want to be in proper premiership contention when Hunt is mid-contract.
They'd certainly feel much better about the contract call they've just made, too, if Hunt is the Queensland and Australian halfback at that point.
As mentioned earlier, Hunt may not arrive in time to save coach McGregor. And the front-office implications are intriguing.
This is a massive feather in the cap of long-serving and much-maligned chief executive Peter Doust, as it stands right now. But should it go pear-shaped, it's the biggest reason yet for angry fans to emblazon the Jubilee and WIN Stadiums with their 'Oust Doust' signs.