DREAM TEAM star Zak Hardaker reckons the Four Nations was a positive experience, despite not playing a game.
Hardaker, selected as the best full-back in First Utility Super League last season – was a member of the England squad which toured Australia and New Zealand in the autumn, but failed to make the cut for any of their three Tests.
The 23-year-old reported back for fitness testing with Leeds Rhinos this week and will begin pre-season training properly in January.
He admitted it was frustrating not to get a match under his belt as coach Steve McNamara preferred Sam Tomkins in the No 1 role, but described his first England tour as “awesome”.
“I had never been to Australia before and it was something I was really looking forward to,” Hardaker said.
“I was a bit disappointed I didn’t get chance to show what I could do, but I went to Gold Coast, Brisbane, Melbourne and we had a night out in Sydney towards the end and Australia is somewhere I’ve always wanted to go.
“To have that experience and go out there with the boys, I really enjoyed myself over there, even though I didn’t play.
“There was plenty to do after training, we had plenty of spare time and the camaraderie among all the guys was terrific.”
Hardaker made a controversial early exit from England’s 2013 World Cup squad and said being part of the entire tour helped put that behind him.
“I knew what the situation was,” he said. “Before we flew I knew there was a 50-50 chance I was going to get picked.
“I thought I might be able to get one game in. That’s what I was hoping for, but I tried to look on the bright side.
“It was quite a young squad, there was three or four of us who didn’t get picked and we got quite friendly.
“I spent a bit of time with the Wigan boys Joe Burgess and Dan Sarginson. I hadn’t really spoken to them before, but we got on like a house on fire.
“Things like that build character and builds a good team. The full team really enjoyed each other’s company and we got on really well.”
After more than a month off, Hardaker was back at Rhinos’ Kirkstall base on Monday and Tuesday and was due to watch today’s Tetley’s Festive Challenge against Wakefield Trinity Wildcats.
He admitted he is having to play catch-up, after beginning pre-season later than the majority of his team-mates.
“This is the dreaded bit,” Hardaker confirmed. “Last year I got cut short of a holiday and I played Boxing Day.
“That was a long pre-season for me, but it has been a bit different this year. They gave me plenty of time off – I went to Mexico for two weeks and that was terrific, but the hard work starts again now.
“We’ve had two days of fitness training and if the results are right me, [fellow England players] Kallum Watkins and Ryan Hall have got time off until January 2.
“Leeds have been really good with us. They said ‘if you come back in good nick and you test all right you can get some more time off’.
“We are a bit behind, but we are meant to be the elite players and the fitter guys.
We aren’t far off at all – though Ryan has put a bit of weight on! That will soon come off. We fly to Florida on January 9, we’ve got a game over there, then we come back and it’s JP’s [Jamie Peacock’s] testimonial against Bradford.
“Before we know it it will be February and the start of the season. It comes around fairly quickly, but having the extra time off means I can enjoy it with my family and have a good Christmas.”