ALL EYES will be on one man when Castleford Tigers square up to Leeds Rhinos at the Jungle tonight.
Full-back Zak Hardaker won every available domestic honour in a Leeds jersey and was Super League’s outstanding player only two seasons ago, when he was named Man of Steel.
But the relationship between player and club had as many downs as ups – with Rhinos issuing several warnings over his off-field behaviour – and a parting of the ways came last summer when Hardaker joined Penrith Panthers on loan.
With Rhinos making it clear they did not expect the 27-year-old back at Headingley, the former Featherstone Rovers man signed for Castleford on a year-long loan deal in the off-season and is set to join them permanently next year.
Tonight will be the first time he has lined up against his former club and he described the derby showdown as “massive”.
But Hardaker, who was man of the match in Tigers’ win at Warrington Wolves six days ago, insists he has nothing to prove to Rhinos or anybody else.
“It’s something I looked at at start of the season: what are we - away or at home first?” Hardaker said of West Yorkshire’s biggest derby.
“It should be exciting to be down at the Jungle with Leeds coming, but I’m not really bothered about what I need to prove to Leeds or anyone.
“As long as I play well and play well for Castleford that’s all I’m bothered about really.”
Hardaker admitted he might have remained at Leeds in an ideal world, but has no regrets about the move.
“Things happen in life and things change,” he added.
“It was time for a change for myself and I just thought it would be in the best interests of both parties that I not be there.”
Rhinos’ loss was Tigers’ gain and Hardaker – a member of the England elite performance squad who met for the first time this week – could prove to be the best signing of the season if he continues his early form.
Rated as the top defensive full-back in Betfred Super League, he has also given Castleford – who lead the early-season table after successive wins – a new dimension in attack.
Hardaker reckons Tigers can’t afford to drawn into the hype about their title chances, but believes they have what it takes to go all the way this year if they keep working as hard as they have done so far.
“We’ve started off pretty well, but we can’t rest on our laurels,” he stressed.
“We need to keep going and we have tough fixture this week so we need to carry on with that.
“We’ve only played two games, but just looking from last couple of seasons Castleford have been progressing very well and have always done better than the previous year.
“If you go by that, hopefully we will finish in the top-four and then it’s up to us – it’s in our hands. We have the squad for it and the coaching staff and the belief. So as long as we’ve got all that and take it into each week and get the wins, I’m sure we can be there at the end.”