Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker's making a big case for defence

Try-machine Zak Hardaker is ready to show off a new side to his game when his two clubs meet this weekend.

Hardaker, 19, joined Leeds Rhinos from Featherstone Rovers on a five-year contract last October, but will spend this season on loan at his former club.

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He has been training with Rhinos since the start of pre-season and played in their two trial games so far, including the 36-26 win at Hunslet Hawks three days ago.

That marked the end of his pre-season campaign with Leeds and he will line-up against Rhinos when the sides clash at Big Fellas Stadium on Sunday.

Rovers coach Daryl Powell believes Hardaker has already "muscled up" in three months of full-time training and the player himself feels his defence has improved since the last time he pulled on a Featherstone jersey, in last year's Co-op Championship Grand Final.

"I have put a bit of weight on," he reported. "If anything let me down last year it was my defence, because I am not the biggest person on the pitch.

"In pre-season we have been smashing each other in the combat room and I have put some size on and my confidence has grown.

"My tackling has got a lot better and I'm looking forward to doing it

in a game, to show the fans I have got better."

The season-long loan arrangement will see Hardaker continue to train with Leeds, despite playing for Rovers.

"I have been training a bit with Featherstone, but not regularly," Hardaker said. "With the season coming closer, I'll be doing more at Featherstone.

"When the season starts I'll be training three times a week with Featherstone and during the day at Leeds.

"It has been quite tough at times at Leeds, but I am really enjoying it. All the boys have been great, they are really friendly and welcoming and it has been great to be there."

Hardaker burst on to the Co-op Championship scene last year. He topped Rovers' try scoring chart with 22 in just 14 appearances, including a hat-trick on his senior debut in a 68-0 Northern Rail Cup win at Hunslet Hawks in March. His league debut came the following month.

The NRC romp at Hunslet was Hardaker's only game at full-back for Rovers so far, with all his other appearances coming on the wing.

He got a brief run out as a substitute winger for Rhinos in their New Year's Day victory over Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, but was at full-back in last weekend's Lazenby Cup tie, making three try-saving tackles and landing a couple of goals.

"I prefer full-back," he revealed. "I played full-back for the reserves at Featherstone and when I was younger, but I don't mind playing on the wing.

"I have really enjoyed the games with Leeds. It is a lot different, the speed of the game and things like that, but it has been good to get a couple of games under my belt before the season and I think I have gone

well.

"I didn't get much chance attacking-wise against Hunslet, but my defence was all right. I'm not bothered about defending one-on-one, it is part and parcel of the full-back position.

"I think I'm getting there and I can't wait for the season to start."

Of this Sunday's tussle, he predicted: "It should be a good game. I think Leeds will be playing their under-20s again, so it's another

chance for them.

"That's what you want when you're 18 or 19. I think it will be a tough game for Featherstone, because it was a good effort to beat Hunslet.

"I thought we played really well – we only trained once on Thursday and had the Saturday morning run-through. I think Leeds' under-20s will go well this year."

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