DEPARTING Leeds Rhinos star Zak Hardaker last night spoke of his “excitement” at joining Penrith Panthers and urged fans to understand the private reasons behind his move to the NRL.
The transfer-listed England full-back has joined the Sydney club with immediate effect initially until the end of the season with highly-rated Papua New Guinea hooker James Segeyaro coming the other way for the same stint.
Man of Steel Hardaker, 24, was put up for sale nearly three weeks ago at his own request, expressing a desire to play in the NRL, with the defending Super League champions placing a £300,000 price tag on his head.
He hopes to impress enough in the coming weeks to secure a long-term deal with Penrith while Segeyaro – who won the prestigious Dally M award for NRL Hooker of the Year ahead of Australia captain Cameron Smith and New South Wales State of Origin No9 Robbie Farah in 2014 – has been released by the Panthers.
Hardaker, of course, has had a brilliant career at Headingley since joining as a teenager from Featherstone Rovers in 2011, the pinnacle being their treble-winning campaign last year.
But he has had a chequered past, too, with a number of disciplinary issues on and off the field. Leeds have stood by him during those times and some supporters – especially with the club currently bottom of Super League – may feel he is now letting them down.
But Hardaker told the YEP: “I can’t put into words how thankful I am to the fans for helping me through some good and bad times and especially the club itself, all the players and everyone there.
“With those ups and downs it’s always been interesting but a few things have happened this year in my life away from rugby which not many people will know about.
“I don’t think I should explain what has happened but a few people will think I am letting the team down and my friends.
“That’s not the case at all, though. I spoke to Leeds about it throughout this year and the boys know what position I was in.
“They know why I put in a transfer request to go and start something fresh and try something new.
“I’ve tried to do the best by the club – I don’t want to upset them – and Leeds are doing well out of this.”
Hardaker, who Penrith could use at centre given long-term injuries to Kiwi internationals Dean Whare and Peta Hiku, added: “I’m really excited now.
“A few clubs asked about me and it was pleasing to see some big ones do that.
“But when Penrith came in, and I did my research, saw their facilities – some of the best in Australia – as well as the coaches and players they have, I thought it was a great opportunity. I know I’m joining a good club and now I can’t wait to get out there and test myself.”
Segeyaro, the 25-year-old whose electric pace and creativeness should significantly bolster Leeds, hopes to arrive in time for their next game against Widnes Vikings a week on Sunday.
Hardaker, meanwhile, could fly the other way as early as Monday.
Leeds head coach Brian McDermott said: “It is pleasing we’ve been able to resolve the situation as quickly as possible.
“Zak goes with our best wishes and I’m pleased for him that he has been able to fulfil his ambition of playing in the NRL.
“When Zak came to us to request a move, it was always going to be important that we were able to strengthen our group and in James Segeyaro we have a great opportunity to bring in a highly-rated player into our group.”