Karmichael Hunt admits he is eyeing a return to the Wallabies and a Rugby World Cup berth as a “carrot” at the end of what he hopes will be a redemptive year.
But on the eve of his first Super Rugby match in 19 months, the new Waratahs signing said those ambitions are secondary, and way off in the distance.
The first – and only – priority is paying back the faith of those Waratahs coaches, players and fans who have given him another chance to lace up his boots.
“I am never one to disrespect the faith that has been shown (in) me,” Hunt told Rugby Australia’s official website.
“I don’t go out there, or have never gone out there, to intentionally try to betray people.”
The Waratahs have welcomed Hunt in this year, offering a fresh start and a second chance after drug charges at the start of 2018 – which were later dropped – saw him exiled by Queensland coach Brad Thorn for the entirety of the season.
But north of the border, Hunt is seen as being on his third chance, having already been given him the same shot at redemption when he first switched from AFL to rugby in 2015.
Hunt was suspended for six weeks and fined a total of AUS$32,500 being found guilty of cocaine possession, and pledged then to get his life together.
So there is reticence among some in Queensland to buy Hunt’s words now and the 32-year-old gets it.
So why is this chance different? Be it second or third, it’s undoubtedly the last.
“I thought I was addressing my issues but I wasn’t doing it honestly,” Hunt said.
“It’s been a process. I’d like to say after the first incident I’d learned my lessons but the reality is I hadn’t.
“I have put a lot of work in over the last year with pyschologists and doctors and things like that, but most importantly, I have been open and honest about how I am feeling, day to day. With my wife, with my kids, with friends, with media.
“And that’s a new path for me. In the past, the example that was shown to me was to stay quiet and push on.
“I have made a lot of changes in the past year and I am moving forward in a positive direction.”
This time a year ago Hunt’s career was in limbo after he’d been again charged with cocaine possession, in December of 2017.
The charges were dropped by prosecutors in February, with Hunt pleading guilty to possession of Xanax, but the plans to continue on his rise of the previous year – where Hunt won six Test caps for the Wallabies – went out the window.
Hunt remained on the Reds books but setting a hardline on culture, Thorn made it clear he would not pick him.
“Coming off a Spring Tour, I was expecting obviously to play Super the next year but some things happened and I was put on the sideline by the Reds, for all of last year,” Hunt recalled.
“There was so much going on in the moment about uncertainty, uncertainty about career, uncertainty about what was going with the courts and whatnot, thinking about rugby and getting back to the top level at that point in time – especially early on in the year – wasn’t even in my frame of mind.
“But as the year went on and things rolled out in the way that they did, not playing was tough.
“Obviously watching my guys go out there and do battle every weekend, and then come up to having to watch Test rugby in the June series and still be on the outer, and then have to watch the guys play the All Blacks and Argies and then go onto the Spring Tour, it was pretty tough to watch.”
Hunt eventually returned to rugby through club rugby in Brisbane, with fellow exile Quade Cooper at Souths.
Hunt returned to the National Rugby Championship with Brisbane City, which “allowed me to get my head back into footy” at an elite level and pave the way, he hoped, for a change of Thorn’s mind for 2019.
But a chat with the Reds coach and former Broncos team-mate late in the year made it clear there would be no such thaw, and Hunt began to look elsewhere, with Queensland’s blessing.
The Waratahs, keen to build depth, saw the value of adding a dual international and after a long period of due diligence and stakeholder consultation, they signed Hunt on a one-year contract over the Christmas break.
Hunt only began training with the Waratahs on January 20 and if he is named in the Waratahs’ 23-man squad to take on the Hurricanes on Saturday at Brookvale as expected, he will have had less than a month in sky blue kit.
It won’t matter, according to his new coaches and teammates, who have been blown away by Hunt’s intensity and obvious class in those few short weeks.
Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson recruited Hunt to help him rotate and rest Kurtley Beale, Israel Folau and Bernard Foley, but there’d be little surprise if Hunt forces his way into a starting picture well before the star legs get tired.
Hunt played inside centre in the Waratahs’ trials, and fellow new “recruit” Adam Ashley-Cooper believes he could easily play outside centre too.
The Reds used Hunt at full-back and even number 10, and the Wallabies used him as an impact player from the bench.
It’s easy to forget, too, that the Queenslander had a professional career prior to that where he played rugby league for his state and country, and started in 44 AFL games for the Gold Coast too.
So Hunt is genuinely not phased by what number is on his back.
“I am pretty versatile,” Hunt says.
“I know what I am capable of and Daryl has me at his disposal. All I am concentrating on right now is being the best version I can be at training, and off the field, and preparing as best I can to start the Super Rugby season.
“Wherever that may be position-wise, we’ll have to wait and see. So far it’s just been about me getting the footy in my hands and getting back out there.
“The desire is always to play at the top level. I know what I am capable of, and what my talent is capable of, and what my work ethic gets me, so I was just grinding and hoping for an opportunity, and thankfully an opportunity has come through the NSW Waratahs.”
Hunt will re-unite with Folau, his old Queensland Origin, Kangaroos and Broncos teammate at the Waratahs, after they shared a few snatched Test moments in 2017 for the Wallabies.
The utility admits he would love to have more time in the gold jersey, and making the World Cup squad later this year is a goal.
“Without a doubt, yeah,” he said.
“It’s a carrot at the end of the year for sure but I am not going to get lost in looking too far ahead.
“It’s Super Rugby that’s most important right now, and playing my best football for the Tahs and making sure we win games.
“I am here to do a job.”
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