After his problems at the end of last season Zak Hardaker feels he is an improved and mature player this term. Peter Smith reports.
ON THE eve of the new season, Leeds Rhinos ace Zak Hardaker feels he has improved and matured as a player and person since his difficult end to 2013.
Off-field issues led to an early exit out of England’s World Cup camp and a warning from Rhinos’ management, but Hardaker has impressed coaches and fellow players with his response in pre-season.
“When it happened it was one of those things I needed to put behind me and crack on,” Hardaker said of last year’s controversy.
“I have trained really hard in pre-season, adapted my game a bit and added things to it which I might not have been able to do if I had been with the England squad, because I would not have had as many weeks pre-season wise.
“I have got a lot fitter and a bit stronger in the gym as well, so there is a silver lining. It happened, but it gave me extras to work on and I’ve been able to do that. I am really looking forward to taking that into Sunday’s game and the rest of the season.”
Hardaker – who was made captain for the Boxing Day clash with Wakefield – had spells as a half-back in his pre-season games, giving boss Brian McDermott an added option this year.
“I do enjoy it with the ball,” Hardaker said. “I think my game is more about running and kick-returns and I do think full-back is my position, but one of the things I’ve worked on is my ball skills and it has paid off.
“Playing in the halves has been good for me, it’s another string to my bow and if we do get injuries I am sure I could go in there if needed.”
Hardaker and his Rhinos team-mates return to competitive action tomorrow when they begin their First Utility Super League campaign away to Hull KR and he feels they are in good shape.
“It has been one of the toughest pre-seasons we’ve had for a while, but one everyone’s enjoyed,” Hardaker said. “We’ve got new systems in place and everyone’s looking forward to a big season.
“Every team in Super League has signed new players, they’re all going to be better than they were last year and the competition is going to be tighter.
“We are ready to play now. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve gradually been getting better and better. The camp in Portugal last week was really good, it was good to get away and to analyse where we’ve been, what we did last year and where we want to be this year.
“This week it has been windy and raining and it always seems to be like that at Hull KR, so it’s good we’ve been able to practice for it.
“The lads are really ready. If pre-season was another week it would be a bit long, but everyone – not just us, but every team – is really looking forward to getting started.”
Leeds have made fewer signings than any of their rivals, other than last year’s league leaders Huddersfield Giants, but Hardaker insisted: “We’ve got a really good squad.
“Last year the injuries got to us a bit, but the signings give us strength in depth, which we haven’t had for a while. When we’ve had key injuries we’ve struggled, but this year there’s Tom Briscoe, Ben Jones-Bishop, Ryan Hall and me in the backs and if anybody gets injured we’ve got really good replacements.
“That’s really good to see. In the forwards Brad Singleton has really come on to the scene and it looks like he will play a few more games this year.
“JP (Jamie Peacock) has signed another two-year deal and it looks like he is never going to retire and everybody has had a really good pre-season. We are all really fit and looking forward to it and the people who’ve come in have really added to the squad.
“We finished third last year and with the added players we’ve got I think we can really push for first and see where we go from there.”
Rovers have sold more than 10,300 tickets for the game, which will mark the opening of KC Lightstream Stadium’s new stand.
Hardaker admitted silencing the crowd will be one of Rhinos’ first priorities.
“It is always a daunting place to go,” he said. “Hull KR’s fans are good home and away, but hopefully our fans will be behind us in the new stand and it’s all set to be a really good game.
“When you play at home you want it to be a bit of a fortress. For Hull KR, having a full-house will be brilliant. We have just got to turn up and play our game.
“We know what we’re capable of and I am sure we will be able to silence them somehow. It seems every time a club has a big occasion, it’s always us who are playing them – like Bradford when it might have been their last game or Catalan when they opened their new stand.
“The Rhinos fans always travel away in really big numbers and they are loud for us.
“They are some of the best fans in Super League, the atmosphere will be really good and it’s just up to the two teams to really give it some.”