REPENTANT LEEDS Rhinos ace Zak Hardaker says he will be keeping his frustrations to himself from now on.
The England full-back is set to return from a five-game ban – imposed for an offensive comment made to referee James Child during Rhinos’ defeat at Warrington Wolves in May – when Leeds play host to Castleford Tigers at Headingley tonight.
Hardaker said he has learned his lesson and believes his ban will also serve as an example to other players.
“Rugby league is a physical sport,” said the 22-year-old two-time Grand Final winner. “Everyone gets hot-headed at times and people say things they shouldn’t.
“Obviously it was the wrong time, wrong place and wrong word that I said. It’s not just myself that’s learned from it, I reckon everyone else will as well.
“You have to take a positive from a negative. I have certainly done that and I am looking forward to just playing rugby.”
Hardaker has been named in Rhinos’ initial 19-man squad along with Ben Jones-Bishop, who scored three tries from full-back in the five games Hardaker missed, but limped out of last week’s win over Hull KR due to a knee injury.
“I have got to get picked first,” Hardaker said.
“But I have been training hard for the last couple of weeks. Being a professional player is all about getting out there and playing the game, so I am itching to play.”
Hardaker missed just one game – at home to Wakefield Trinity Wildcats in April – before his ban and reckons his enforced lay-off has been a mini pre-season.
“I am really fresh and raring to go,” he stated.
“There’s only a few games in the regular season left, so it is vital all the team is fresh. I am going to try and turn it into a positive and I certainly hope I can do that.”
Five matches is a significant portion of a 27-round league season and Hardaker added: “Looking back now, it seems to have gone fast, but two or three weeks ago it seemed like an age to get through.
“But it’s done now and there’s some big games coming up.
“The semi-final of the Challenge Cup is something we are looking forward to, but Castleford is always a big game and with the form they are in at the moment it is going to be an exceptional atmosphere at Headingley.”
Rhinos lost twice during Hardaker’s ban and have yet to recapture their early-season form. He admitted that made his stint on the sidelines even harder.
“That’s when it is toughest, when the team is finding it hard,” he said. “You want to add something to the team, so it’s difficult when you are sat in the stand, rather than in among things. But I am looking forward to contributing to the team now and hopefully getting some more points on the board.”
Hardaker took part in England’s mid-season training camp during his ban and said: “I was given a week off, but then three and a half weeks’ training, so I’ve been getting flogged all the time.
“I was in real good form and it was disappointing I had to miss five games, but I think it might have done me a world of good. I am itching to get back and hungry to succeed, not just for myself, but for the team as well.”
Leeds have three games before the semi-final against Warrington Wolves on August 9. There’s one match between the semi-final and final and then just three more before the play-offs begin, so with Wembley and the league leaders’ shield both up for grabs, Hardaker reckons it is a good time to be back in action.
Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Kylie Leuluai and Ian Kirke are all included in tonight’s squad after injury and Rob Burrow, Kevin Sinfield and Carl Ablett returned last week.
“I think we’ve got more more or less the full squad back now,” Hardaker said. “That is a good sign. We are getting players back at the right time of the season. The end of the season is always our pinnacle and it’s when we aim to be at our best.”
Rhinos go into tonight’s game in second spot on the First Utility Super League table, one point and three places clear of Tigers. This evening’s victors will move into top spot, but Leeds could drop as low as fifth if they lose and other results go against them.
“It’s a big game,” Hardaker commented. “The top-five are separated by four points so it is really tight this year.
“Cas will be full of confidence. They had a really good result against Huddersfield last week, but we really rate our chances highly at home, whatever team we are playing.
“It is going to be a really good game for the spectators. This is the business end of the year now. We do know what it takes and what happens at this time of year.
“We’re focused on finishing top this year and doing it that way, so everyone’s really looking forward to this game.”