Hunt has been Queensland’s punching bag this week. (Matt King/Getty Images)
Hunt has been Queensland’s punching bag this week. (Matt King/Getty Images)

Did Ponga’s arrival trigger Hunt’s breakdown?

BEN Hunt is not solely to blame for Queensland's State of Origin collapse - and the communication breakdown may have started with the selection of Kalyn Ponga on the bench.

St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor has come out strongly in defence of his under-fire playmaker ahead of Hunt's club return against Parramatta.

And McGregor has zeroed in on the 68th-minute sin-binning of NSW right centre James Roberts that exposed an obvious flaw in Queensland's decision-making process.

McGregor firmly believes this could have been caused directly by Ponga's presence.

Hunt has copped it from every angle since Queensland's 18-14 defeat on Sunday night, and it is not just the fans giving it to him.

Justin Hodges came out publicly and said he wants Hunt axed for the dead rubber on July 11. Hodges also revealed Mal Meninga agreed Hunt was not the answer at No. 7 going forward.

There is no denying the fallout has reached the point where many are questioning what psychological effect this could have on the Dragons' No. 7 in the charge to the NRL finals.

But after reviewing the tape of the set that immediately followed Roberts' sin-binning, McGregor explained what he believed went wrong - and why Hunt should not be singled out.

THE "BRAIN EXPLOSION"

Johnathan Thurston labelled Hunt's fourth-tackle grubber kick that went dead in-goal "a brain explosion".

And like the rest of us, McGregor struggled to understand why Queensland made the decision to go right instead of attack left.

On the first play from the tap, Queensland worked the ball from left to right towards the centre before shifting back left on the second tackle.

Then they reloaded back to the centre, where most were expecting they would again attack left on tackle four.

Instead, dummy-half Andrew McCullough (inset one) looks to his left and decides to go right to Hunt (inset two).

In the background (inset three), even before Hunt kicks, you can see Cameron Munster throw up his hands in frustration, knowing the ball has gone the wrong way.

No one knows if Hunt overcalled or McCullough made the decision, or if this was the plan agreed on going into the set.

But why did it happen?

As McGregor explained: "You had Ponga, (Greg Inglis) and Munster on the left. Billy Slater should have been on the left, not on the right. Then it wouldn't have went to Benny.

"They went to an edge where they had five defenders against five attackers. To the edge where Latrell (Mitchell) is still on the field, whereas the other centre (Roberts) is not on the field. And it was off a set start.

"What I am trying to say is that it can't be one person's fault (other players should have known what the plan was).

"The execution of (Hunt's) kick can be leant obviously on Benny because it didn't come off. However, why would they even be thinking of going right?

"Why would Slater be on that edge when he should have been on the left?"

Asked if he believed Ponga's presence caused the confusion, McGregor agreed: "100 per cent. How many points did they score when (Ponga) was on the field? Four.

"I understand he has to play, but he has to play in a role that doesn't affect everyone else, like every other (NRL) team does.

"So for me, it is pretty hard to handle (to lay sole blame on Hunt).

"Yes, take ownership of the execution around the kick. But they did have shape on the right, where I think Billy should have been on the left.

"And he was on the right because Ponga was (on the left)."

 

Did Ponga upset the balance? (Phil Hillyard)
Did Ponga upset the balance? (Phil Hillyard)

 

While Ponga's outstanding debut was one of the highlights, there is no doubt Queensland's attack was far superior in the opening 30 minutes - when Slater was dominating.

"You can understand why there is a little bit of confusion, not clarity, around it," McGregor said.

"I don't dismiss Benny needs to execute the kick if he is going for it. But the thought process around that whole set, maybe they all could have done something better.

"If they had their time over, they probably should have gone back at NSW's right edge three times in that set.

"I haven't coached Origin so I don't know the formalities around it, but if we are discussing that at club land, we are discussing the whole four of the spine. Not just one player."

GOING FORWARD

McGregor confirmed Hunt would play on Thursday night - and he should not be looking back with regret, but using the experience to make him a better player.

"Don't get me wrong, Ben is still learning the trade at the top-end level because it is his third game of Origin and one was off the interchange," McGregor continued. "But they are hanging him up on one kick?

McGregor has taken a closer look at the play. (John Appleyard)
McGregor has taken a closer look at the play. (John Appleyard)

"The only other thing I saw that he did wrong was that he shanked another kick.

"But Latrell gave him the opportunity back (when a pass to Josh Addo-Carr on zero tackle went to ground). Other than that, I thought he played well.

"I don't see how you can put it down to that one moment in a game when there are other moments when other players didn't finish off opportunities up the other end that they usually do.

"And there were probably three of them.

"They have felt Ben was the best No. 7 for Queensland and everyone has to realise the three players that are missing (Cameron Smith, Thurston and Cooper Cronk) are probably going to be talked about for as long as everyone is alive who has seen them play.

"The only way you get better as a player is playing in those big games and making mistakes and learning from them and not making them repeated.

"I have said to Benny, 'You can't listen to everything. You can just learn from what you have done'."

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