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Why Dragons should not be in Hunt to extend Ben’s contract despite Dally M contender’s career-best form

Ben Hunt could very well win the Dally M Medal this year as the NRL’s best-performed player but the Dragons should still not re-sign him.

That’s not to say they’d be better off without him, far from it. If not for Hunt, the team would be sitting at the bottom of the ladder rather than 11th spot with still a faint mathematical chance of making it into the finals.

But the recent talk that the club and Hunt could strike a deal to extend his contract beyond the next year should be alarming for the team’s long-suffering supporters who are already milling around ready to launch a mutiny against the club over their muddled recruitment and ongoing faith in besieged coach Anthony Griffin.

Hunt will turn 33 at the start of next season and already has plenty of miles on his legs following 285 NRL appearances over the course of 14 seasons, 14 Origins for Queensland and seven Tests for Australia.

The Dragons were roasted for their multimillion-dollar poaching of Hunt from Brisbane in 2018 but Hunt has for the most part kept up his end of the bargain by giving them quality service at halfback, particularly this season’s career-best form.

Hunt has an option in his contract that he could walk at the end of this year if he so desires and with the Dolphins still searching for a marquee face of the franchise, he would fit that bill.

(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

As a Maroons stalwart who was one of their best performers in this year’s series upset over NSW, he could help give the fledgling club on-field direction and off-field credibility in its formative years.

“Queensland is home to us and once footy is finished, we’re definitely going to end up back in Queensland but at the moment honestly I am really enjoying myself down here,” Hunt said on SEN on Tuesday night.

“It’s no secret that I love being coached by ‘Hook’ and I think our team is heading in the right direction. We’ve got some good young guys that will benefit with another year under their belt. I’m enjoying it and really playing good footy, I think.”

The Dragons are facing a situation reminiscent of Penrith a few years back when James Maloney was coming to the end of the second year of a lucrative three-season deal.

Maloney was 33 at the time and still delivering as a top-level playmaker but the Panthers already had a rising star in Nathan Cleary locked in at halfback and Jarome Luai had shown enough in his first 17 games across the 2018 and ‘19 that he was the future.

The Rabbitohs had targeted Luai as a prospect they could recruit when it looked like Cody Walker could head elsewhere but Penrith invested in Luai, telling Maloney he was free to leave if he found a better offer, which came in the form of a Super League swansong with Catalans.

St George Illawarra have Junior Amone established now as one half of their halves future with 30 games under his belt and a debut Test appearance for Tonga.

Jayden Sullivan is their Luai. He’s now attracting interest from other clubs headed by Canterbury, and his management is not being shy about ensuring the media has been kept up to date with possible approaches.

The 20-year-old halfback, who was handed a debut in 2020 and played another five games last year, has only been able to double his career tally to 12 this season due to a mix of injuries and being stuck in NSW Cup behind Hunt.

(Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

One option that could eventuate for the Dragons with Andrew McCullough potentially retiring at the end of this season would be to switch Hunt to hooker with Sullivan partnering Amone in the halves.

Hunt has done exceptionally well at hooker at Origin level and could very well be wearing Australia’s No.9 jersey at the World Cup ahead of specialist trio Damien Cook, Harry Grant and Api Koroisau.

Based on his three Origin starts at hooker for Queensland this year, he should be.

If the Dragons used him at hooker next year, he could be the steadying on-field influence the young duo would need and would also be able to return to the halves if Sullivan or Amone was injured or their form did not warrant selection.

Moses Mbye is another failsafe who can slot in at hooker or the halves when not needed as the bench utility.

Investing in the youth, rather than mediocrity, needs to be the joint-venture club’s goal.

Young fullback Tyrell Sloan has paid the price for the mixed messages coming out of the club. He is well down on confidence, as evidenced by his fumbling performance off the bench on Saturday night in the 24-18 derby loss to Cronulla at Shark Park.

After starting the season in three straight games, he was punted to NSW Cup after the team’s first defeat to the Sharks, filled in for one other game in Round 10 before getting a couple of runs off the bench the past two weeks.

Cody Ramsey is due to return from a knee injury for this Sunday’s trip to Canberra so Sloan is unlikely to see an NRL field again this year as the Dragons attempt the improbable feat of jagging a playoff berth.

After rising to eighth midway through the season, they have lost four of their last five and need to string together wins over the Raiders, Titans, Tigers and Broncos to have any chance of sneaking into eighth.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 25: Dragons coach Anthony Griffin stands with the Dragons for the anthems during the pre-game ANZAC Day ceremony before during the round seven NRL match between the St George Illawarra Dragons and the Sydney Roosters at Sydney Cricket Ground, on April 25, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Dragons coach Anthony Griffin. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Despite the near certainty of again missing out on the playoffs, Griffin looks likely to at least be given the start of 2023 to prove he can turn the team’s fortunes in the final season of his three-year deal.

Unless Hunt walks early, the Dragons won’t have a lot of wriggle room with their salary cap after bringing Jack Bird, Jaydn Su’A, Moses Suli and Mbye to the club and throwing big dollars to Jack de Belin and Zac Lomax.

De Belin was somehow given an increased salary after his return from two years out of the game due to his sexual assault court case and the Dragons are paying the price for giving representative star wages to a player on the wrong side of 30 who is no longer in the top 20 candidates for a spot in the NSW Origin pack.

They have filled more than 20 of their top-30 slots for 2023 so they will probably be fielding a fairly similar line-up to the one which is on track for a second successive 11th-placed finish.

And unless there’s a change in direction from the top down, the Dragons will remain mired in mediocrity.

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