CASTLEFORD TIGERS full-back Zak Hardaker is hoping for a “dream” Grand Final against his former club, Leeds Rhinos.
Tigers are at home to St Helens in tonight’s first Betfred Super League semi-final. Hardaker joined Castleford from Leeds in the close season and will be cheering his former side when they face Hull in the other play-off tomorrow.
“I’m a friend of the players and I still love the club,” Hardaker said of Leeds. “It helped me get to where I am today, which I am very grateful for. I want them to do well and I actually think they will beat Hull.
“They have beaten them three times this year and they’ve had the upper hand. They are at home and the fans will get behind them and I think they will do it, so it’s up to us to make it that dream final. It would be great to have a West Yorkshire derby at Old Trafford and I’m sure it’d be a crazy atmosphere.”
As a three-time Grand Final winner with Rhinos, Hardaker’s experience will be vital to Tigers keeping their end of the deal, but he insisted: “We have got a few cool heads in the team who can turn it on at any given moment.
“I think we’ve just got to treat it (tonight) like we have every game all year, that’s the most important thing for us. If it does get tough our most experienced players will have to stand up and try and do something, but we will go out there full of confidence and just try and do what we’ve always done.”
Hardaker reckons they are going into the play-offs in good form, despite last week’s defeat – with an under-strength team – to Hull.
“It was a big game at Wigan the week before,” he said. “Wigan needed to win and they had their best team out, apart from Sean O’Loughlin, and we had quite a few missing.
“We went there and got a good win and a few guys got a debut last week. We had a few bumps and bruises and people could have played, but it would have been three games in 12 days and it would have been quite tough to keep that intensity high, as well as training.
“We train as a team quite hard so I think it was the right call to do that last week and we’ve got some fresh bodies back. Luke Gale is back, which is tremendous to see, and we are looking forward to it.”
Tonight is Tigers’ fifth meeting of the year with Saints and so far the victories have been shared. Hardaker said: “They have probably been our bogey team, along with Hull.
“They have got a new coach and Ben Barba’s in the team as well so there’s new challenges for us, but we are at home in front of our fans and we’ve got a full squad to pick from, which is very lucky at this time of year. We are quite confident and we’ll see how it goes.”
Hardaker is one of eight Tigers players who could return to the side tonight. Gale, Nathan Massey, Grant Millington, Adam Milner, Greg Minikin, Junior Moors and Michael Shenton are all in contention, with Tuoyo Egodo, Jy Hitchcox, Tom Holmes, Jake Trueman, Kevin Larroyer and Will Maher dropping out.
Saints coach Justin Holbrook will select from the 17 who beat Salford Red Devils last week, plus Jonny Lomax and Kyle Amor.
Castleford Tigers: from Cook, Eden, Foster, Gale, Hardaker, Lynch, Massey, McMeeken, McShane, Millington, Milner, Minkin, Moors, Monaghan, Roberts, Sene-Lefao, Shenton, Springer, Webster.
St Helens: from Lomax Makinson, Morgan, Percival, Fages, Smith, Walmsley, Roby, Amor, Wilkin, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Douglas, Thompson, Peyroux, Knowles, Richardson, Grace, Taia, Barba.
Referee: James Child (Batley).