TEENAGE try machine Zak Hardaker admits that his first season with Leeds Rhinos has already exceeded expectations.
Hardaker was among Rhinos’ try scorers in the 44-14 demolition of Hull KR five days ago, his fifth successive appearance on the right wing after returning from a hand injury suffered following his debut in March.
The 19-year-old has touched down five times in his six senior appearances – after six tries in three starts and two games off the bench for Featherstone Rovers earlier in the year.
He bagged a remarkable 22 tries in 14 matches for Rovers during his debut campaign in 2010, a tally which earned him a five-year deal at Leeds.
Initially expected to spend this season on loan at Rovers, Hardaker was recalled by Leeds due to their injury crisis in the outside-backs and said: “I am really enjoying it.
“I have played more games than I thought this year.
“In my own head, I didn’t think I was going to play any games for Leeds. My aim this season was to play as well as I could for Featherstone and hopefully try and win something there.
“I’ve shown that the move to Leeds hasn’t put me off my game. I have been lucky because other players have had a few injuries.
“That’s unfortunate for those players, but I’ve had a chance and I’ve tried to take it as well as I possibly can.
“I’m getting excited with the run of games I’ve had so far and hopefully there’ll be more to come.”
Hardaker feels he is improving with every run-out in the elite competition.
He said: “The big thing in the first one or two games was my defence, out on the wing. We’ve done a lot of work on it and we’ve come to a technique that we are all happy with on our right side.
“We are solid down there now and I am getting good feedback off Brett Delaney, so we are partnering up quite well.
“We are reading each other’s game. After a couple of matches you get to know each other’s games and what you both can and can’t do.
“In training we are working closely together. We’re putting that into practice in games and it has been coming off for us.”
The win over Hull KR lifted the gloom which had shrouded Rhinos following back-to-back defeats by Warrington Wolves and St Helens and Hardaker said spirits are high ahead of tonight’s clash at Crusaders.
“It is a good camp at the moment,” he said. “The two losses were disappointing, but we turned it around last week.
“It was good to get one over Hull KR because they had beaten us the last three times. It was bad conditions, but we adapted really well and it was great to be part of that.
“Now we need to keep building on what we did last week and on what we’ve been doing in training. We’ve got Crusaders and then Bradford at home next week, which is another crucial game.
“If we can kick on from last week’s performance, add bits that we’ve been working on in training and take that into the Crusaders game, then play well against Bradford, hopefully we can get a roll back on and can show that Leeds Rhinos are back.”
Leeds will be favourites tonight against Engage Super League’s bottom side – a team they’ve beaten twice already in competitive matches this year.
But Hardaker – who hasn’t yet faced Iestyn Harris’ team – insisted that nobody in the Rhinos camp is expecting an easy game.
“They are a tough team,” he said. “They aren’t scared of any opposition and have had some good results this year.
“They are dangerous and we are not going to take them lightly. They gave us a tough game in the Challenge Cup, plus there’s the travelling as well and the fact that players will be tired from the England-Exiles game last week.”
Rhinos coach Brian McDermott will select from the 17 players who beat Hull KR, plus Ali Lauitiiti and Chris Clarkson.
Lauitiiti wasn’t selected last week and Clarkson has been left out of the last three games. Both played in Tuesday’s 9s tournament at Hull.
Back-rower Hep Cahill is out from the Crusaders line-up beaten 31-18 at Catalan Dragons last week.
Peter Lupton and Paul Johnson – who were non-playing reserves in France – are both included in the initial 19, with Gareth Thomas coming back into contention in the week he signed a one-year contract extension.
Crusaders: from Schifcofske, Reardon, Martin, Mellars, Kear, Witt, Tansey, Bryant, Withers, Flower, Johnson, Winterstein, Chan, Sammut, O’Hara, James, White, Lupton, Thomas.
Leeds Rhinos: from Webb, Hardaker, Delaney, Smith, Hall, McGuire, Burrow, Bailey, McShane, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Ablett, Sinfield, Leuluai, Buderus, Kirke, Hauraki, Lauitiiti, Clarkson.
Referee: Ben Thaler (Wakefield).
Kick-off: Friday, 8pm.