Super Rugby 2020: Mitchell Hunt reflects on stellar 2019, eyes new opportunities with Highlanders

Having just finished his second day of pre-season training, Highlander Mitchell Hunt conceded the body was a bit worse for wear.

In a new location, surrounded by fresh faces, the 24-year-old is ready to take on the next phase of his career.

It seems crazy one would talk about a 24-year-old beginning the "next phase" of their career when most at that age are just getting their foot in the door.

For Hunt, his professional CV already consists of three Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders, a Mitre 10 Cup title with Tasman and a World Rugby under-20 title with the Baby Blacks.

"When you step back and think about it - it does fly by pretty quick," said Hunt. "I do think about [the success], and I've been in some awesome teams, surrounded by some awesome guys and I've had a pretty awesome journey so far."

2019 was a year to remember for Hunt. He won a third Super Rugby title in a row with the Crusaders and experienced an unbeaten season with Tasman in the Mitre 10 Cup.

"That was special," Hunt said of the Mitre 10 Cup triumph.

"I was in the last of that Tasman era where we had the likes of Shane Christie and Marty Banks; the likes of those guys - when they were in their final year at Tazzy [sic], a lot of those guys and the guys just before them really built Tasman up to [the] success."

Tasman went unbeaten in 2019.
Tasman went unbeaten in 2019. Photo credit: Getty

Now, he's ready to commence the biggest challenge of his career in Dunedin - one he's very much looking forward to.

The reason for his career shift was simple in the end; game time, or lack thereof. As successful as they were, four years at the Crusaders only saw him earn him 43 caps, of which the majority came off the bench.

Had it not been for All Blacks first-five Richie Mo'unga's mortgage on the Crusaders' No.10, things could have been very different.

Either way, Hunt knew he always had to stay ready during his tenure in Christchurch.

In 2017, he kicked a penalty with time expired to edge the Crusaders past the Reds in Brisbane - a game he started in the No.10 jersey due to a Mo'unga injury.

It was later that season when his big moment came - one so special it would ultimately earn him a Halberg Award. 

Hunt wrote himself into southern derby folklore with a 40m drop goal to see the Crusaders past the Highlanders in the dying stages of a tense afternoon affair in Christchurch.

"There have been times where I've been chucked in the deep end and I've been able to execute my game," said Hunt.

"I would honestly say that's the best thing [you can do]; understand your role, whether you're starting or your not starting."

Hunt joins a new-look Highlanders side sprinkled with fresh talent for the 2020 season.

Hunt starred for Tasman in the 2019 Mitre 10 Cup.
Hunt starred for Tasman in the 2019 Mitre 10 Cup. Photo credit: Getty

"A lot of those older-head guys have gone now. There's really only a couple of those older, experienced guys left in the group," says Hunt, referring to the likes of Aaron Smith and Liam Coltman, who the side has retained.

The Highlanders lacked experience and playmaking options last season, two areas where coach Aaron Mauger knew Hunt could make an impact.

"It is tough leaving a Crusader environment that's had so much success. But for me, the thing I was missing was the game time and the time on the field," said Hunt.

"It's a challenge I look forward to and I hope that it does work out, and I hope that I do get some more time on the field."

A potential positional shift to fullback would also benefit Hunt in that respect. Josh Ioane is likely to be the favourite to take the No.10 jersey, but with veteran Ben Smith moving on - the No.15 jersey is there for the taking.

The Highlanders will benefit from having both Josh Ioane, pictured, and Hunt in their ranks.
The Highlanders will benefit from having both Josh Ioane, pictured, and Hunt in their ranks. Photo credit: Getty

"I have played a bit there before; my first year with Tasman in the Mitre 10 Cup was at fullback.

"It's not that different to 10 these days really - a lot of it is similar skill set stuff."

Highlanders coach Mauger - a former Crusaders great - also played a part in Hunt's decision to make the move south.

"There were a lot of different connections there and I could see the similarities to [former Tasman coach] Leon [MacDonald] in the way that he spoke about the game and I really enjoy that," said Hunt.

He [Mauger] did play a big part in my decision."

Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger.
Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger. Photo credit: Photosport

As the season gets underway early in the new year, Hunt is all about taking things as they come."

"I'm just trying to learn at the moment; learn my teammates."