CASTLEFORD TIGERS centre Ben Crooks has joined promoted Leigh Centurions on a season-long loan.
The deal increases speculation Tigers are set to sign Leeds Rhinos’ transfer-listed former Man of Steel Zak Hardaker.
Crooks joined Castleford ahead of the 2016 season – on a three-year contract – after a spell at Australian club Parramatta Eels.
He began his career with Hull and was a member of the 2013 Super League Dream Team.
The 23-year-old scored six tries and a goal in 28 appearances for Castleford this year and Tigers coach Daryl Powell said: “Ben had a really solid first season with us last year and played a number of games in the first team.
“However, with the return to fitness of Michael Shenton and the emergence of Greg Minikin as a quality centre, I thought it was really important that Ben played consistent rugby league game time.
“This loan move gives him a great opportunity to do that at Leigh next season.
“I’m confident that Ben will continue to improve throughout the next Super League season and wish him all the best in 2017 at Leigh Centurions.”
Crooks could make his competitive Leigh debut against Castleford at the Jungle in Betfred Super League round one, along with another member of Tigers’ 2016 squad Ryan Hampshire.
Leigh boss Neil Jukes said: “I am delighted to secure Ben’s services for the forthcoming season. He is a young, talented and athletic player with his best years ahead of him and has already packed a great deal into his career. The coaching staff identified Ben as a perfect fit for our model and when Castleford gave us permission to speak to him we outlined the challenges we face and the ambitions we have for our club and how we saw his role.
“Ben was persuaded to join us and the very fact that a player of his ability feels he can achieve his ambitions at Leigh Centurions is testament to the way our club has developed over the past year.”
Jukes added: “Ben made a big impact at Hull FC and then made the decision to test himself in the NRL. Even though things may not have worked out as he intended I am sure the experience will have made him a better player. He came back to England to become a key player in Daryl Powell’s talented squad at Castleford during the last season and he greatly adds to the strength of our squad as we prepare for the new season.
“All of the coaching staff are excited at the prospect of working with him. I’d like to thank Daryl Powell and everyone at Castleford and also Ben’s agent David Howes for their assistance in this loan arrangement.”
Tigers last month indicated their squad for next year was complete, but Crooks’ temporary exit could open space for Hardaker. The full-back was transfer-listed by Leeds last summer and ended the season on loan at Australian side Penrith Panthers.
He has not been included in Rhinos’ 2017 squad and Leeds chief executive Gary Hetherington says he expects a move to a rival Super League club to be completed this week.
Hardaker was given his break in the professional ranks by Powell during his time as coach at Featherstone Rovers and is believed to favour a move to Castleford over Huddersfiueld Giants, who have also been in the hunt.