CASTLEFORD TIGERS are getting a more mature, happier Zak Hardaker following his move from Leeds Rhinos, the star full-back says.
Hardaker has joined Tigers on loan for the 2017 season with a view to the deal being made permanent after that.
The 2015 Man of Steel was transfer-listed by Leeds in June and finished the season on loan at Australian club Penrith Panthers.
And he reckons the stint in Australia has transformed his outlook as he prepares for a return to Betfred Super League.
Reflecting on the past few months, Hardaker said: “Going to Australia is a bit of a daunting task.
“Not many people go over there and come back the same person. I was adamant I wanted to go over there, get a bit of a fresh start and get my mind fully recharged and focused on what I want in life.
“I did that. I managed to play 11 or 12 games, scored a try and for me that’s what I wanted to achieve before I went over, so I am absolutely over the moon with that.
“I wouldn’t change a thing about going over. I think my mindset has changed massively and that’s what has helped the the last few months – just being happy.
“I have found out over the last few years that when I am happy off the pitch it reflects on it. That’s the mindset I am going through this year, just to be happy and enjoy life.
“That’s a big thing going into this year. The way I go about things is different, I feel like I am a lot more grown up. Being out in Australia has helped me massively, it has made me grow up a bit and that has helped me going into this year for sure.”
Hardaker won three Grand Finals with Leeds and the Challenge Cup and league leaders’ shield twice each, but was also dogged by disciplinary issues and admitted he has learned some tough lessons.
He added: “Everything that could go wrong in a rugby career has done.
“I have pretty much scraped the barrel, but I am hoping that is going to help me through hopefully the next 10 years.
“You live and learn. I have had to learn sometimes the hard way, but so be it.
“I have come out the other end pretty well and I just want to continue that road now and hopefully do really well.”
Hardaker confirmed there was interest from other clubs – including a possible loan deal at NRL outfit Newcastle Knights – but Castleford was his top option for 2017. He said: “I am really glad it’s sorted and excited for what will hopefully be a great year. My mum works in Castleford so everybody’s been asking if I’m coming here.
“The deal went through on Sunday, but talks have been on-going for a few weeks now.
“There were a few other clubs as well, which I don’t think I was that interested in. I was offered Newcastle on loan for a year, but I wasn’t really interested.
“Being out there [in Australia] on my own, it was a bit different to being here.
“Now I live about five minutes up the road [from the Jungle], five minutes away from my auntie, five minutes away from my friends. Being out there, being a bit secluded and being the only English guy was a bit different.
“I really enjoyed it at Penrith, all the boys were brilliant, the club was fantastic.
“I couldn’t speak highly enough of the club, but personally I think if I had a family member out there or a friend it would have been totally different. I could have managed that, but I wanted to come back home and preferably be near home as well. Castleford was the perfect fit.”
Joining Tigers reunites Hardaker with coach Daryl Powell, who gave him his break in the professional game at Featherstone Rovers six years ago. He said: “I spoke to Daryl a few weeks ago and he made it quite clear he really wanted me here. Daryl was a massive factor, how much he said he wanted me at the club and how much he rated me. It made me feel pretty good that somebody really wanted me. I spoke to my agent and said this is the club I want to come to.”
Hardaker confirmed he is “happy” with the loan arrangement, which gives both him and Castleford an opportunity to see how things work out before making a long-term commitment.
He said: “All I wanted was a shot, just to show what I am capable of this year. I spoke to Daryl about that so I am just looking forward to a great year.”
Asked if he feels he has a point to prove, Hardaker stressed: “I don’t feel like I have got to prove it, but in myself I want to prove it.
“Daryl has given me an opportunity and Castleford have so I want to repay them by playing as well as I can and hopefully getting some wins.
“The squad’s not been far off the last couple of years so if I can help in any way to increase the league position into the top-four or semi-finals or the Challenge Cup that’s what I am here to do. It’s not about proving a point, it’s just I really want to do that.”
Hardaker’s first challenge is to win over Tigers’ fans. After playing for two of their fiercest rivals, he accepts he has not always seen eye-to-eye with his new club.
“But as a player and a person this is the best opportunity for me,” he insisted.
“I am really pleased to be here. There’s a game on Boxing Day and hopefully that will be the first opportunity to show what I really want to do for Castleford Tigers.
“People will have their opinions and they’re entitled to that and I’ve got mine, but as soon as I get on the pitch I can show them with my passion and my performances that I really want to be here and how much playing for Castleford means.”