STAND-IN skipper Zak Hardaker has vowed to repay the faith shown in him by Leeds Rhinos coach Brian McDermott.
Hardaker scored a try and three goals in Rhinos’ Boxing Day draw with Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, when he captained the side for the first time.
The former Featherstone Rovers star was last month fined and warned by Leeds for unprofessional conduct following an early exit from England’s World Cup campaign.
But since then he has impressed the coaching staff with his attitude and performance in training and McDermott described Hardaker as the obvious choice to fill in for Kevin Sinfield, who has not yet returned following England duty.
Reflecting on leading the team out in the Heatshot Festive Challenge, Hardaker said: “It was awesome, a massive honour – especially to take over from Kev.
“He sent me a text saying congratulations and it was really comforting to hear that off someone of Kev’s stature.
“I never thought I’d be leading Leeds Rhinos out ever, so to do that was brilliant.”
Hardaker now wants to take on more of a leadership role for Leeds.
“I’ve tried to do that the past two years,” he said. “Settling in it was a bit difficult, but now I am on board with the players I try and be a bit of a lead figure anyway.
“I think Mac saw that last year and that’s one of the reasons he made me captain. I was really honoured and it was great leading the boys out at Headingley.
“A lot has happened, but I just wanted to knuckle down and be with the boys at training again and that’s what I’ve been doing.
“Training has been difficult, but that is what pre-season is about. That Mac has seen what I am trying to do and that I am trying to do well is really rewarding for myself.”
Hardaker insisted he hasn’t changed his approach, despite events last month.
“I try my best every time I train and every time I play,” he stressed. “There’s never been a time when I haven’t given 110 per cent.
“It’s just the same since I started playing at seven years old. It is no different, what’s happened has happened and I am just looking forward to the 2014 season starting.
“When you get kicked down a peg or two it is always good to get back and climb the ladder.
“That’s what I will be aiming to do. I’ve got my sights set firmly on things I want to achieve and I’ll be doing that on the field, hopefully, for Leeds.
“Pre-season has gone really well and all the lads have cracked on. We’re all looking forward to the England lads coming back on January 6 and then we’ll fix our goals and set our sights on what we want to achieve.”
Hardaker is expected to continue as Rhinos’ first-choice full-back in the coming season, but filled in at scrum-half on Boxing Day.
“I played there when I was about 12 or 13,” he said. “I haven’t played there for a long time, but I’ll play anywhere for Leeds.
“I’d play prop if I was asked – I probably wouldn’t be very good at it, but I’d give it a shot.
“I like more of a running role so I would prefer full-back, but if I’m put at six or seven I will try my hardest.”
Meanwhile, Hardaker has dismissed speculation linking him with a move away from Leeds – particularly to Wigan Warriors – as “just rumours”.
He added: “You hear loads of rumours, but you just get on with it.
“I am a Leeds player and that’s where I’ll be next year.”
McDermott paid tribute to Hardaker for the way he responded to his England setback.
Said the coach: “It was a shame there was an incident and a shame Zak was involved in something like that, but I don’t see that as the error.
“The error is if he doesn’t react to it correctly and doesn’t make those positive moves after that.
“I can’t speak highly enough of him, how he’s applied himself.
“He has got a fair amount of leadership qualities and they’ve really come out in the last few weeks.”