MAN OF Steel Zak Hardaker is one last, big effort away from capping a remarkable year with yet another honour.
Within the last three months, Hardaker has got his hands on the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup, First Utility Super League leaders’ shield and Grand Final trophy, as well as being voted – by his fellow professionals – the best player in the elite division.
The Leeds Rhinos full-back, whose season began in February, will finally get a chance to reflect on what he has achieved this year, after playing for England in tomorrow’s sold-out final Test against New Zealand at Wigan.
With the series tied at one win each, tomorrow’s victors will lift the Baskerville Shield, making it effectively Hardaker’s third final of 2015 – and that does not include the last Super League fixture at Huddersfield, which Leeds needed to win to secure top spot.
Hardaker admits it could be the ideal end to a near-perfect season – and the prize on offer is more than enough motivation to go to the well one last time.
“It has been a really long year for me and some of the other boys,” reflected the 24-year-old, who is also among the nominees for the Golden Boot, awarded annually to the world’s best player.
“But it’s playing for your country and you have to put everything into it.
“We all have, not just myself.
“It has been a tough year, but we have got one last game to play and then we get a few weeks off.
“We’ll give it 110 per cent for this last game.”
Hardaker is set to return to Leeds for testing late next month and expects to be back in training in the new year.
Other clubs – including Castleford Tigers and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats – began pre-season this week, before the 2015 campaign officially ends tomorrow.
Leeds’ pre-season campaign opens against Wakefield on Boxing Day and the first team will head to Florida for a training camp in January.
Their first competitive game, at home to Warrington Wolves, is less than three months away, on February 4.
Hardaker said: “I’m looking forward to getting through this one and then having a rest – I haven’t even started thinking about next year yet.
“Hopefully I can get back into training in January and take it from there, but we’ve got to focus on one last hurrah first.
“If we can do that it’ll be a good end to this very, very special year for myself.”
England haven’t beaten southern hemisphere opposition in a Test series since 2007, when they whitewashed New Zealand 3-0.
Hardaker added: “To win the series would be fantastic for all the players and staff.
“For the country as well it would be really good, it would put us on the rugby league map.
“That’s what we want to do. It has been two tough, physical games and it is one-all, which I think is a fair reflection on the games so far.
“I think we produced a pretty good display in the first and not so good in the second.
“We know what to do and it is good we can play the same opposition again and get a chance to put things right.”
England are 28-21 ahead on aggregate after a 26-12 victory in the opening Test at KC Stadium, Hull and last Saturday’s agonising 9-2 loss.
The missed opportunity to wrap up the series with one game still to play was a huge disappointment, but Hardaker insisted England have what it takes to put things right.
“I think we can turn it around, massively so,” he said.
“If we defend like we did last week it’s not often you lose a game.
“To be fair to the Kiwis, they did play better than us (last week), but we know we have got a lot more in the tank.
“We can produce a lot better attacking performance than we did, so that is quite encouraging to know.
“We had a weekend at home with our families, then came back in and regrouped.
“We’ve looked at where we can improve and we’ll try and apply that on Saturday.”
England have conceded just three tries in the 160 minutes of the series so far, but rarely looked like getting over New Zealand’s goal line six days ago.
Their one real chance came late on, when video referees James Child and Phil Bentham decided James Graham had not grounded the ball from Josh Hodgson’s kick.
Hardaker reckons England have taken positives from their performance, particularly in the way they defended, but knows they have to offer more of a threat with ball in hand.
All the home team’s four tries so far have been scored by forwards, but Hardaker feels England are capable of a much better attacking display tomorrow.
“It was a tough, physical game again,” he said of the showdown at London’s Olympic Stadium.
“I thought the full team defended really well.
“They (New Zealand) got a bit of a lucky bounce here and there.
“They got over for a try, which they deserved in the end, but I think it put us under too much pressure and we didn’t attack as well as we could do.
“I think that cost us in the end, but a tight game like that is pretty encouraging for this week.”