Leeds Rhinos: In-form Hardaker gives England coach McNamara selection headache

Leeds Rhinos and England full-back Zak Hardaker. PIC: John Rushworth
Leeds Rhinos and England full-back Zak Hardaker. PIC: John Rushworth
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ZAK HARDAKER believes England coach Steve McNamara will have a “tough” decision to make on who should get the No1 jersey for Sunday’s opening Test against New Zealand.

The Leeds Rhinos full-back enhanced his chances of earning a place against the Kiwis for a first time when he helped England ease to a 84-4 vanquishing of France last weekend.

However, Sam Tomkins, the regular custodian now with Wigan again after two years at New Zealand Warriors, is expected to be fit to resume after a knee injury.

There is, of course, the option for McNamara using Man of Steel Hardaker at centre, his original position, or, less likely, from the bench when he names his squad tomorrow.

But the 23-year-old insisted: “I’ve played well all year, got the shirt (against France), took my chances and did nothing wrong so for me, personally, I’ve been solid again.

“It’s all just a good year’s effort for me. It is going to be a tough one for Steve and I’ll have to wait to find out but I’ve done myself a really good favour and I’m heaps proud so we’ll just see.”

If Hardaker does play at the KC Stadium in Hull, it will be only his third cap and he will, also, face a world-class opponent in Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, the dynamic Sydney Roosters full-back who caused Leeds no end of problems in Friday’s 34-16 warm-up win at Headingley last Friday.

“He is fantastic,” enthused the Yorkshireman.

“I’ve watched a few NRL games this year and he’s been pivotal for the Roosters.

“I watched some of the match on Friday night and his side-step and footwork are just tremendous.

“He’s definitely one of their threats and I thought Isaac Luke played great too.

“The pivotal players they’ve got played really well; we’ll have to look at them leading into Sunday.”

Bizarrely, despite England scoring 15 tries and the fact he crossed twice on debut against Wales in 2012, Hardaker – such an attacking force for treble-winning Leeds in 2015 – failed to get on the scoresheet against France.

“It was a weird one,” added the former Featherstone Rovers flier.

“We seemed to break them down the middle quite easily at times and across the board got some good tries.

“I didn’t get over but was happy with my performance.”

Given the one-sided nature of the game at Leigh, however, it meant Hardaker didn’t have much chance to showcase the superb defensive qualities that have underlined his class in 2015.

“Even though we scored a lot of points I thought defensively we were really good when we needed to be,” he said.

“We defended our line a few times but would probably have preferred to defend it a bit more.

“I just tried to catch the ball on the full and then there was that tackle towards the end on (Morgan) Escare, it’s just credit to our team really.

“Things we’ve been putting in place seem to have paid off, everyone’s gelling really well and it seemed like everyone knew each other’s game which is really good and very beneficial going into the Kiwis game.

“We know it’s going to be a really tough ask.

“Last Friday, New Zealand were always going to start a bit slow with the travelling over and things like that (they only arrived on Monday last week). It will be a tough test but we got some points on the board last weekend and a bit of confidence.”

Hardaker was an unused squad member when England fell by just two points in last season’s Four Nations Down Under.

Meanwhile, he admitted keeping a watchful eye on Ahston Golding for the Rhinos against New Zealand last Friday.

The 19-year-old Academy product came in and dazzled at times against the number-one-ranked team in the world, and winning man-of-the-match to boot.

“He’s brilliant,” he said. “He’s a fantastic player and definitely one for the future especially at Leeds.

“I do have to say he’s a brilliant lad and really professional to say how young he is.

“I will have to watch my back there Ashton he is a terrific player.”