Leeds Rhinos re-signing of Zak Hardaker is gamble worth taking – Peter Smith

IN THE classic western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the two main characters find themselves looking for work as they attempt to go straight in Bolivia.

By Peter Smith
Thursday, 28th April 2022, 6:45 am

Fed up of his takings being taken by local bandits, mine owner Percy Garris employs the outlaws as payroll guards.

Offering them the job, he tells Butch and Sundance: “Well, ah, considering that I’m desperate - and you are just what I’m looking for - you start tomorrow morning.”

Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington probably had a similar conversation with Zak Hardaker before the ex-Castleford Tigers and Wigan Warriors man rejoined the club this week.

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Zak Hardaker, a treble winner in 2015 with Leeds Rhinos, has rejoined the club. Picture: Steve Riding.

In Garris’ case, things don’t work out well; he is shot and killed by the Bolivian bad guys the following day. In fact, the movie also ends badly for Butch and Sundance, but they do get the payroll cash back.

Whether Hardaker’s return to Rhinos has a happier ending remains to be seen, but Leeds are desperate and he is, indeed, just what they are looking for.

The 30-year-old last played for the club in 2016, the season after collecting his third Grand Final winner’s ring.

After a series of disciplinary issues - on and off the field - he had a spell on loan at Penrith Panthers and then joined Castleford ahead of the 2017 campaign.

Former Leeds Rhinos player Robert Lui. Picture: Steve Riding.

He lost his job there after a positive test for cocaine led to him being suspended just days before Tigers’ Grand Final showdown with Rhinos.

Hardaker joined Wigan in 2018 and regained his England place, but was dropped a couple of weeks ago after coach Matt Peet said he had fallen short of the club’s standards.

Released from the final few months of his contract, he was a free agent before joining Rhinos on a deal until the end of this season.

That is a reflection of where Rhinos are at the moment, second from bottom in Betfred Super League, having won only two of their 11 competitive fixtures this year and with a horrendous injury list, particularly in the outside-backs.

Leeds Rhinos' goalkicking forward Rhyse Martin. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

Nobody would have had ‘Hardaker rejoins Rhinos’ on their pre-season bingo card, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

Interim-coach Jamie Jones-Buchanan has stressed the importance of improving the culture at the club and signing a player with Hardaker’s record in that regard seems to go against that.

But here’s the thing: Hardaker is one of the best players in the competition and any team will be better with him in their ranks.

Rhinos have injury problems at full-back, centre and wing and Hardaker can play all those roles - particularly the first two - to a high standard. He also tends to go particularly well when he first joins a club and the short-term nature of the arrangement makes it less of a gamble by Leeds.

Hardaker is a likeable character who has a habit of doing daft things, but as far as anyone knows, he kept his nose clean - so to speak - for the best part of four years at Wigan and, now with a young family, a move back to Yorkshire makes sense on a personal level.

Man of Steel in 2015, when Rhinos did the treble, this is realistically his last chance in Super League so the incentive is there for him to knuckle down and focus on the job at hand.

Leeds are no strangers to a relegation battle and they also know what it takes to turn things around. In 1996, the signing from Widnes of David Hulme was the catalyst; in 2016 Leeds swapped Hardaker for hooker James Segeyaro and his arrival was instrumental in them climbing the table.

Three years ago, Robert Lui and Rhyse Martin were signed and played an influential role in another successful fight against the drop.

Hardaker may well have a similar influence and, if and when everyone is available, a backline of Richie Myler/Jack Walker at full-back, Hardaker and Harry Newman in the centres and David Fusitu’a and Ash Handley on the wings is a formidable prospect.

Not everyone will agree and it is up to Hardaker to prove the critics wrong but, in the circumstances, it is a gamble well worth taking.