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by The Sunday Mail, Sunday March 07, 2004

"See this mark," the Broncos staffer says, placing his hand up high on an imaginary scale. "That's where Justin Hodges was in his first game for us."

Thinking back, it was a reasonably impressive debut for Hodges in 2000. At just 17 he saved two tries and was among the best in a losing side to Canberra.

Emphasising his point, the man raising his hand looks across and lifts his eyebrows, as if to say the mark should command respect.

"Now then," he says slowly, sliding his other hand a good 10cm higher, "this is where Karmichael was at in his first game."

In no way is the comparison meant as an insult to Hodges. Plenty of people at Red Hill hold great regard for the talents of the Roosters centre.

Rather, it's testament to the faith in boom youngster Karmichael Hunt, fresh out of school and having completed his first proper off-season.

Hunt doesn't turn 18 until November, yet already coach Wayne Bennett has named him in trials against NRL clubs Melbourne and Sydney.

Not that Bennett is the one giving comparisons between Hodges and Hunt.

You'd suspect Bennett would rather invite Phil Gould into his bridge club than offer glowing reviews of Brisbane's rising stars.

The mantra at the Broncos has always been to make young guns earn their stripes. Nobody is keen to praise Hunt on the record.

It's what hasn't been said that gives the game away. So far there's been no mention of him needing to mature, needing to take stock or do time in lower grades.

In fact, when another coaching member is asked whether Hunt should be listed as a possible star of the Queensland Cup he says: "No, he's not playing Queensland Cup now is he?"

Hunt, though, has been taken aback by the transition from schoolboy to starter, popping his eyes wide when quizzed about his recent fortunes.

"I was very surprised when Wayne told me I'd be playing that first game," he says. "He said I'd be on the wing, when usually I'm a fullback or centre.

"I was pretty nervous those first five minutes, but the guys around me were good talkers and I eased into it OK.

"It was good to get a win in my first game."

Nominating Bennett and Darren Lockyer as the greatest influences on him thus far, Hunt has a simple approach to getting the job done.

He reckons that if he works hard all week, there's no reason why he can't stand up to the task on weekends.

It's a good ethos for anyone, let alone a kid so young, especially when Bennett described the off-season as "the summer they'll never forget".

Punished in every possible way, Hunt says he found mental strength from the rigours of NRL training.

"It was pretty tough at first; tougher than anything I've ever done," he says. "Before I'd maybe go for a few runs in the off-season, which is nothing like being exhausted every day."

A graduate of Churchie, Hunt was born in Auckland and moved to Australia five years ago.

In New Zealand he played rugby league from the age of four. A huge basketball fan, Hunt also has bloodlines in softball and touch football and experience in rugby union.



(c) The Sunday Mail