Hardaker comes of age
Leeds Rhinos full-back Zak Hardaker was a teenager playing for Featherstone Rovers in a Co-operative Championship Grand Final just two years ago but on Saturday he will come of age when he runs out at Old Trafford for a second consecutive Stobart Super League title decider.
Super League’s newly-crowned young player of the year has enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame over the last 18 months and his career could be about to get even better after he was named in Steve McNamara’s England squad.
“I have to pinch myself,” he said. “I was involved in the Championship awards two years ago with Featherstone and that was overwhelming. But now I’ve been to the Man of Steel and it keeps getting better.
“I’ve always believed in myself and backed myself to get into Super League but it’s come really fast. It’s unbelievable, something I’m really proud of. It’s been a really special two years.”
Snapped up from Featherstone as a winger, Hardaker got his chance due to injury last season and made the most of his opportunity by scoring 12 tries in 15 appearances, including one against St Helens in last October’s Grand Final.
He was handed Keith Senior’s old number four jersey at the start of this season and featured at centre when the Rhinos beat Australian champions Manly Sea Eagles to win the Heinz Big Soup World Club Challenge in March.
The ever-present Hardaker - he has scored 21 tries in 36 games so far this year - was switched to full-back by coach Brian McDermott in mid-summer when Brent Webb suffered a knee injury and, such was his impact there, he kept the spot when the experienced Kiwi regained fitness.
Now it seems likely Leeds will abandon their plans to sign a new full-back for 2013 and instead focus on a plugging the gap at centre.
Hardaker said: “If they ask me if I want to stay at full-back, I’d say I would but if they also asked if I would play on the wing, I’d say yes. I would rather play in any position than none at all.”
If the youngster has looked comfortable in the full-back role, it might just be because of his experience in his formative days in junior rugby when he dreamed of following in the footsteps of Wigan Warriors and Great Britain full-back Kris Radlinski.
“I had a short stint there when I was younger,” he said. “I didn’t really know which was my position but I was fast and I loved catching those high balls.
“It was rare that I dropped them so that was a bit of a hint I suppose. Full-back’s a great position, I really enjoy it.
“Growing up I used to watch Kris Radlinski. I was fascinated by him. He had electric pace, no-one could touch him. Now I try to take a bit from everyone and try to do my own thing as well.”
Hardaker also rates Warrington Wolves’ veteran Australian full-back Brett Hodgson, his opposite number on Saturday who is 14 years his senior but playing as well as ever.
“He’s brilliant, especially at the age he is now,” said Hardaker. “They’re the guys you look up to.”