A third game in eight days holds no fears for Leeds Rhinos’ in-form centre Zak Hardaker.
Rhinos play host to Wakefield Trinity Wildcats in the opening tie of the Carnegie Challenge Cup fourth round tonight, just four days after a 52-10 Stobart Super League win over London Broncos and a week on from the 12-4 defeat at Bradford Bulls.
Tonight’s game marks the culmination of the most hectic period of the season, but Hardaker reckons neither side can use that as an excuse for a poor performance and he isn’t among the critics calling for one game only over Easter.
“It is tough,” he said. “But I prefer a short turnaround to a longer one.
“It is a bit of a pain when you’ve got a Friday game followed by a Monday one the next week. You have to have a couple of days off and your head is not really right sometimes.
“We chalked Monday off and then moved straight on to Wakefield and we put our minds to that from training on Tuesday.
“I think a lot of our lads prefer playing to training, I know I do. We have taken care of ourselves and got plenty of rest.”
Hardaker bagged Rhinos’ final two tries against London, extending his scoring run to nine in six games.
His six-game scoring sequence is three short of the Super League record set by St Helens’ Paul Newlove in 1996 and equalled by Paul Sterling, of Leeds, the following year. Sterling actually scored in 10 consecutive games, but the last was a World Club Championship tie.
Hardaker is now joint second on the Super League tries chart, with 10. His winger, Ryan Hall, is equal third, on nine.
“That result is going to stand us in good stead and it’ll give us some confidence,” Hardaker said of Monday’s 10-try romp.
“We keep improving, even though results haven’t always gone our way.
“We dipped a bit in the second half and let London come back, but we stuck to our guns and defended well.
“We scored a lot of tries and it was good to post some points on the board. There was some good backfield stuff, Ryan scored four, Bish (Ben Jones-Bishop) scored a couple and Carl (Ablett) played really well in the centre.
“It’s good that we’ve strength in depth.”
Tonight’s Challenge Cup tie will be Rhinos’ ninth in succession against top-flight opposition.
They haven’t lost away from Wembley since a fourth-round defeat by St Helens more than three years ago and Hardaker admitted that the Challenge Cup is the holy grail for Rhinos’ current squad.
Leeds have lost their last five finals, including 2010 and 2011 and of their present line-up only Jamie Peacock, with Bradford Bulls against Leeds in 2000 and 2003, has a winner’s medal.
“It was a big goal last year, but we lost against Wigan in the final,” Hardaker recalled.
“This year we want to win every competitionn, we are definitely going to take it seriously and we’ll see if we can win this one.
“There’s no easy games, the Challenge Cup is always a tough competition and there’s everything to play for.
“Wakefield have had some good results. Recently they’ve not got the results they wanted, but they have a good squad.
“We are all aware of how good they can be and we’re not going to take them lightly. They’ve got some of our old players and they’ll be tipping them up about where we’re strong and where we’re not.
“We need to look after the ball and make sure our defence is good again, that will be key and our attack will come on the back of that.”
Half-back Danny McGuire is set to return tonight after a four-match lay-off due to a hamstring injury and Stevie Ward and Liam Hood are also vying for a recall.
Brad Singleton – a substitute on Monday – is serving a one-game ban following an incident in a recent under-20s fixture.
Rhinos’ management are confident Rob Burrow will feature, despite aggravating a shoulder problem against London, but Kallum Watkins will be sidelined for at least another four weeks due to a medial knee ligament injury, Jamie Jones-Buchanan (knee) is still a month away from a return and Weller Hauraki (calf) and Richard Moore (ankle) are set to be out for another two weeks.
Richard Mathers (illness), Danny Kirmond (calf) and Dean Collis (hamstring) are all back in Wildcats’ squad after missing Monday’s defeat at Wigan Warriors, alongside Ben Cockayne, Tim Smith and Andy Raleigh, who were rested.
Matt James also come into the reckoning, after a calf injury, with Motu Tony, Liam Kay, Frankie Mariano, Paul Johnson and Matt Wildie dropping out from Monday’s team.
Former Rhinos ace Ali Lauitiiti (hamstring) and captain Steve Southern (calf) remain sidelined.
Leeds Rhinos: from Webb, Jones-Bishop, Ablett, Hardaker, Hall, Sinfield, L Smith, Griffin, Burrow, Peacock, Clarkson, Delaney, Bailey, Leuluai, McShane, Kirke, McGuire, Hood, Ward.
Wakefield Trinity Wildcats: from Mathers, Fox, Mellars, Sykes, Cockayne, John, T Smith, Amor, Aiton, Raleigh, Walshaw, Kirmond, Washbrook, Wood, Trout, Ellis, Wilkes, Collis, James.
Referee: Richard Silverwood (Mirfield).
Kick-off: Tonight: 8pm.