LEEDS RHINOS’ Zak Hardaker is ready to finally get his “foot in the door” with England as he prepares for a belated second cap for his country.
The full-back, named Steve Prescott Man of Steel following his stunning form with treble-winning Leeds this term, has not featured with England since a two-try debut against Wales in 2012.
He was thrown out of their World Cup squad the following year for a breach of discipline and was an unused member of Steve McNamara’s Four Nations squad that toured Australia 12 months ago.
However, with Sam Tomkins having lost his battle to shake off a knee injury that curtailed his NRL career with New Zealand Warriors, Hardaker is now in line to face France at Leigh on Saturday.
He was named in the 19-man squad yesterday, along with Rhinos colleagues Kallum Watkins and Ryan Hall, and will almost certainly start at No1 .
If Hardaker then produces anything like his stellar Leeds form, it would be hard for McNamara to leave him out of his plans for the first Test against New Zealand the following week, even if Tomkins does, as expected, return to full fitness.
On the prospect of playing, he said: “I’ve been in the England set-up now since 2011, first with England Knights, so I’ve always been there or thereabouts. But it’s been a big learning curve for myself really over the last four or five years.
“I know the progression I’ve made, but I know what level I can achieve and I’m trying to get my foot in the door.
“Last year was frustrating on one level, but on another it was one of the best times of my life, because I’d never been to Australia before.
“I’ve had a pretty good year to give myself the best opportunity.”
England are expected to ease past France before New Zealand – Four Nations champions after ending England’s hopes last year – offer the real examination.
The Kiwis are under-strength due to injuries but Hardaker insisted: “They have a terrific squad.
“They can only pick their best team available and they’ve done that.
“It’s going to be a very physical task but we’re confident; the new structure this year at Super League has generated better performances so that’s got to be good for England.”
McNamara has made one bold – but certainly refreshing – choice ahead of the French game with Wigan Warriors’ George Williams, the dynamic stand-off recently crowned Super League Young Player of the Year, set to make his debut.
He gets the nod ahead of his Warriors team-mate Matty Smith, who was No7 at last year’s Four Nations, and Castleford Tigers’ uncapped scrum-half Luke Gale who are both left out of the 19-man squad.
Wigan’s John Bateman and Joe Burgess plus St George-Illawarra prop Mike Cooper are also in line for debuts.
England 19 v France: Bateman, J Burgess, T Burgess, Cooper, Cudjoe, Farrell, Ferres, Graham, Hall, Hardaker, Hill, Hodgson, O’Loughlin, Roby, Watkins, Westwood, Whitehead, Widdop.