Karmichael Hunt has shown no signs of a year out of professional rugby and, since joining the Waratahs last week, is already adding a defensive ferocity to NSW on the training paddock.
That was the verdict of Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson after he named Hunt to start at no.12 against the Highlanders in the Tahs’ opening trial in Otago on Friday night.
Abiding by the World Cup-year restrictions placed on Wallabies’ trial appearances, the Waratahs will be captained by Will Miller and have a large number of youngsters in their 27-man squad.
Long-time Bernard Foley understudy Mack Mason will partner Mitch Short in the halves, Lachie Swinton and Hugh Sinclair will be in the back row and young props Shambeckler Vui and Harry Johnson-Holmes will bookend West Harbour hooker Andrew Tuala.
The 12-man bench contains just one player- Jake Gordon - who has played Super Rugby, and features promising rookies like Will Harris, Ben Donaldson, LeRoux Roets and Will Harrison.
The Tahs backline has the most experience, and includes dual international Hunt at centre.
Exiled by the Reds, Hunt played club rugby and NRC last year but Gibson said he’d shown no signs of having sat out the Super Rugby season.
"I have been very impressed with the professionalism and the condition he has come in,” Gibson said.
"By his own admission, he had a year away from the rigours of training professionally and the physical contacts that you take. I have been impressed with him.
"He has come in and been very professional with the way he goes about his stuff. The squad have welcomed him with open arms.
"He is adding a real edge to us, around the intensity and particularly what he is bringing in defence. As I said from the start, our biggest growth area is in defence and making sure we are tough and harder to break down.”
Hunt is likely to be a back-up to Kurtley Beale in the midfield but the option of shifting Beale to 15, and Israel Folau onto a wing, is always a possibility if that defensive starch becomes indispensable.
"When Karmichael first joined us, and when we were recruiting him, we always had that position (no.12) in mind,” Gibson said.
"One of the things we wanted to bring to our side is a real defensive edge, and physicality, into that position. Again with the recruitment of Adam Ashley-Cooper, who is a renowned defensive genius, and with Karmichael, it really gives us some stiffness there in the midfield. It also gives us a lot of options in depth, which allows us through the season to better manage our squad.”
Gibson said the newly introduced national plan, designed to deliver Wallabies players in peak condition to the World Cup, had meant a trickier than normal off-season, where they’d had to carry a much bigger squad to compensate and prepare for this first trial.
"The national program has conditions this year about when our international players are allowed to enter into trials and play their first game and that has meant for us we have had to manage our squad,” Gibson said.
"You’ll notice in the first selection there a number of younger players who are coming through our system and have been given opportunities.
"And really earning that opportunity, they’ve been going great. And surrounding them with some really experienced players. With the recruitment of Karmichael and Adam Ashley-Cooper joining us, is for that reason. To help develop our younger players."