Karmichael Hunt has become a surprise rugby union hit at the wrong end of the European season for the fledgling Gold Coast AFL club.
Hunt’s strong display at five-eighth for Biarritz in their European Cup semi-final win at the weekend means the former NRL star will stay in France for a further three weeks.
He will not arrive on the Coast until the end of the month, when he will be thrown straight into action for the AFL expansion club to begin adapting to his third professional football code.
But coach Guy McKenna should not worry about Hunt being burnt out by excessive rugby games – he will not have to play again until the May 22 European Cup final against French rivals Toulouse at Stade de France in Paris.
Biarritz missed France’s Top 14 six-team play-off series, finishing seventh despite Hunt scoring a try in their final-round 27-22 loss to Racing Metro, which grabbed the last finals spot.
After playing in the centres for the bulk of an injury-affected season, the ex-Brisbane Broncos full-back was a shock choice at five-eighth against Munster in the 18-7 Cup semi-final upset but acquitted himself well, especially in defence and with his kicking.
Happy to see their big-name recruit drop-punting the rugby ball accurately, Gold Coast officials deny they are concerned about Hunt’s delayed return and pleased to see he continued to adapt quickly to different roles.
Asked whether they had crossed their fingers Biarritz would lose to Munster, Gold Coast football manager Marcus Ashcroft said: “Yes and no.”
“As a rugby union player he’s developed quickly,” he said.
“You would want him to get back here as quick as he can but for his sake it’s good for him to play a final and experience that so we have no issue with that.
“Whether he gets back two weeks earlier or two weeks later it really doesn’t affect what we’ve got for him.”
The earliest Hunt, set for just a two-game VFL debut stint, could play for Gold Coast in the VFL would be June 5 against the Northern Bullants at Princes Park.
“He’s going to get back here around the end of May,” Ashcroft said. “He’ll be with us and training straight away and we will play him after that.”
The last Australian to win a European Cup was Wallabies captain Rocky Elsom, who starred for Irish club Leinster last year before returning to Australia.
Hunt’s fellow NRL recruit Sonny Bill Williams is also enjoying success in France, impressing at inside centre for Toulon between Jonny Wilkinson and Tana Umaga.
Toulon finished second in the Top 14 and only need win their May 14 semi-final to make the May 29 final.
Big-spending Toulon, who only narrowly avoided relegation last year, have also qualified for the Challenge Cup final against Cardiff on May 23 in Marseille.
Williams’ improvement has been a major factor in Toulon’s rise and New Zealand Rugby Union is very keen to lure him back home to press for a spot with the All Blacks in the 2011 World Cup.