MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Karmichael Hunt had long harboured hope of becoming a dual international but the fullback was “shocked” when Wallabies coach Michael Cheika named him to start at inside centre for the season-opening test against Fiji.
New Zealand-born Hunt will join fellow rugby league convert Israel Folau in the Wallabies’ backline at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium on Saturday.
“It was a little bit surprising given I’ve been playing at 15 for the last couple of years but when it comes to test footy you take whatever jersey is given to you,” the 30-year-old Queensland Reds player told reporters on Friday.
“I was a little bit shocked but I’ve managed to get my head around the plays (and) I’m looking forward to it and come game day I will be ready.”
Hunt and Folau were team mates at National Rugby League team Brisbane Broncos and both went on to play internationals with the Kangaroos before trying their hand at top-flight Australian Rules football.
While Folau struggled to adapt to the indigenous game in two seasons with Australian Football League (AFL) team Greater Western Sydney, Hunt had a successful four-year stint for the rival Gold Coast Suns from 2011-14.
The road to the Wallabies has been a much rockier one for Hunt, however.
A few months after playing his first rugby union match with the New South Wales Waratahs, Folau scored two tries in his Wallabies debut against the British and Irish Lions.
Hunt’s career in the 15-man game with the Queensland Reds was stalled by a six-week ban after he was charged for cocaine possession at the end of his last season in AFL.
He impressed Cheika enough to be selected in the Wallabies training squad to face England last June but was sidelined by a groin injury.
While Folau was instrumental in the Waratahs’ maiden Super Rugby championship in 2014, Hunt has toiled for less reward in a Reds team that has struggled to rebuild after their run to the 2011 title.
“It obviously hasn’t been an easy road for me,” said Hunt. “So to be able to get here and make my debut against Fiji, it doesn’t get any sweeter for me.”
The door finally opened for Hunt with an injury to his Reds team mate Samu Kerevi, Cheika’s first-choice inside centre.
“Karmichael sort of forced his way into that spot, I think he trained really well and had a good season,” Cheika told reporters on Thursday.
“We’ll just let him play his natural game.”
Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly