FULL-BACK Zak Hardaker says he is ready for the new season after returning to action in Leeds Rhinos’ win at Doncaster two days ago.
Hardaker made a shaky start, including an intercepted pass that led to one of Doncaster’s three touchdowns, but got stronger as the game went on and bagged a try in Leeds’ 42-14 success.
With Rhinos set to begin their First Utility Super League campaign away to Hull KR this Sunday, Hardaker said it was vital he got a game under his belt after missing their four previous trial matches.
The 23-year-old began pre-season training only last month after being given December off following England’s Four Nations campaign in Australia and New Zealand.
He had been due to play against USA Pioneers during Rhinos’ training camp in Florida, but missed that match because of illness and was not risked in Jamie Peacock’s testimonial clash with Bradford Bulls at the end of January.
That was Rhinos’ only full-scale trial game, but Hardaker was drafted into the squad for the trip to Doncaster, to ensure he had some match practice ahead of the season-opener.
“The object was just to get my legs going again and a full 80 minutes under my belt before Hull KR on Sunday,” Hardaker said. “It was a good performance by the lads. I’ll take it forward to this week and I’m looking forward to it.”
Hardaker’s previous game was Rhinos’ play-offs defeat by Catalans Dragons last September and he admitted it took him a while to shake off the ring rust. He said: “We didn’t have much ball in the first half, so I couldn’t really do anything.
“Being a full-back you just have to wait for the ball so the first half was frustrating, but I got into the groove a bit more in the second. In the first game you are always a bit rusty, but I have got out of that now and I’ve got a good 80 minutes under my belt. I feel better for it. I’ve not been well so it was a good chance to see how my fitness was. I was pretty good, to be fair, so I feel fine.”
Of his illness in Jacksonville, Hardaker said: “I was really poorly. I got ill so instead of risking me they went with Ashton (Golding) in the Florida game.
“When we got back I wasn’t 100 per cent and there was no point risking me (against Bradford) because Ashton was playing really well.
“But I needed a game before the start of the season and it was good to get the one on Sunday out of the way. I feel a lot better going into the Hull KR game now.”
Hardaker added: “Pre-season is always a tough, daunting thing for everyone, but that’s over now and we can focus on the big game on Sunday. We are looking forward to that.
“I think everyone’s happier now pre-season is over and we can crack on and do what we do best, which is train for the week in hand and game day.
“It is always good when you have got a goal at the end of the week. We have got a long week ahead now, but we’re looking forward to Hull KR.”
Sunday’s opponents finished ninth in Super League last term, but have overhauled their squad during the off-season.
“I think they’ve got 13 new signings,” Hardaker said.
“It will be a full house over there, like it was when we played them in the first game last year.
“It will be an exciting game. We’ve got Ryan Bailey playing against us and he will be really up for it, but the lads have been really good in pre-season.
“Against Bradford they were really, really good and it’s going to be good to get a full week’s training in before the game.”
If selected, Sunday will be Bailey’s debut after his surprise off-season move from Rhinos.
Bailey, who won six Super League Grand Finals with Leeds and was a member of last year’s triumphant Challenge Cup team, is a major recruit for Rovers and Hardaker said his first appearance adds spice to the showdown in five days’ time.
“For me, I’m not tackling him, so I’m all right,” the Leeds No 1 said.
“I am sure he will be up for the game, but equally we are as well. We want to start the season really well.”