Broncos sweat on Hunt’s return

The return of Ben Hunt can’t come soon enough for Brisbane as they brace for an opening NRL finals derby clash with North Queensland.

Wayne Bennett admitted they sorely missed the injured star halfback after the Broncos’ minor premiership hopes were dashed by a 15-8 NRL loss to Melbourne on Thursday night.

Hunt (cork) could only watch from the sidelines in the first match he had missed all season as his replacement Ashley Taylor was taken to hospital before halftime with two badly broken fingers.

“Obviously we missed Hunt. He has played two years without missing a game for the club and it’s a vital position,” Bennett said.

Halves partner Anthony Milford will also be counting the hours until Hunt returns after being heavily targeted by the Storm in his trusty No.7 sidekick’s absence.

“He was marked, wasn’t he?” Bennett said of Milford.

“His partner in crime wasn’t there so it made it easier to get to Milford.

“But he has all the qualities a champion has, he’s tough and never stops trying.”

Melbourne kept alive their top-four hopes but ended Brisbane’s chances of claiming their first minor premiership since 2000.

However, Bennett believed Brisbane were ideally placed ahead of the finals starting next week.

In his Broncos return season after seven years away, master coach Bennett guided Brisbane (17-7 record) to second spot on the NRL ladder.

They will host No.3 seed North Queensland next week in their Suncorp Stadium finals opener.

“I am really pleased with what they have done, where they finished, no one can take No.2 away from them,” Bennett said.

“That is quite an achievement in itself.

“(And) I am still not disappointed with what we did and how the boys tried without him (Hunt) – I thought they were tremendous.”

Party poopers Melbourne spoiled Brisbane’s Thursday night farewell for Broncos skipper Justin Hodges, who will retire at season’s end.

Fans were allowed onto Suncorp Stadium for a post-match tribute to 15-year veteran Hodges at their last regular season home game.

But Hodges said: “I’m not too emotional about it.

“It’s just another game. It’s not my final one yet.”

Meanwhile, Bennett backed Darius Boyd to run out against the Cowboys after the fullback left the field in the 68th minute with concussion.

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