MAN OF Steel Zak Hardaker is enjoying the limelight after coming through some “dark times”.
The Leeds Rhinos full-back has been hailed the outstanding player in this season’s First Utility Super League – and that is a far cry from events over the past three years which threatened to derail his career before it had really started.
Hardaker made a controversial early exit from England’s 2013 World Cup squad and served a five-game ban last year for remarks made to a referee during a game.
At the start of this season, he was dropped for a match and fined by Rhinos after receiving a police caution following an incident in the city.
Since then, he has knuckled down and been a key player in an all-conquering campaign which has seen Rhinos lift the Challenge Cup and League Leaders’ Shield and qualify for Saturday’s Grand Final, against Wigan Warriors.
“Everyone goes through dark times as a rugby league player,” Hardaker admitted.
“There’s things that happen in life and I’ve been involved in things where I could have got out, but I’ve stayed and faced the consequences. I’ve hit some bumps, but come out of the other side smiling and I’m playing well and playing the sport I wanted to play since I was three or four years old. Everyone has different journeys – some people don’t have much drama in their lives.
“This proves I’m a strong character, it’s not bad to win an accolade like this. You can’t be off the pitch and doing silly stuff and coming on to the field and producing your best rugby. I’ve turned my game up a notch and this is a true reward for that.”
Hardaker, who turns 24 later this month, insisted he was shocked to win the game’s top individual honour.
“I’m pretty speechless and overwhelmed with the achievement and the accolade,” he said. “I really didn’t expect it. I was amazed when I got the nomination so to go on and win it and take the extra step is something else. It’s such a big award and some special people have won it.
“Honestly, I thought it would be between Alex Walmsley and Adam Cuthbertson, I think they’ve been tremendous all year. Cuthbo has come in from Australia and given a whole new meaning to the prop-forward game. It’s a new brand of rugby he’s brought over and Leeds have really capitalised on that and we’ve done really well on the back of what he’s done. St Helens have done really well this year, too, sometimes down to Alex Walmsley.”
Hardaker signed for Rhinos from Featherstone Rovers at the end of 2010 and made his debut the following season. He was young player of the year in 2012.
“This is my best year to date,” he said. “I’ve improved year on year since I’ve been at Leeds and, hopefully, I can do that next year because it’ll be tremendous. The team I’ve been in and the players I’ve played with this year have really helped me to score tries and I really pride myself on my defending so to get recognised for some of that is nice. I’m quite different to some other full-backs – some are really attacking, but I pride myself on my defensive efforts.”
Hardaker insisted he has not changed the way he plays this year, but admitted he was determined to make a big impact.
He said: “Year on year in Super League, getting more experience helps. I really wanted to make a statement this year and show people how good I can be. I want to play in the internationals – whether that’s full-back or any other position – I want to give myself that opportunity.
“I feel I’ve done that this year and I’m really proud of my achievements on a personal level and the team’s. I’ll wait and see what happens for the internationals, but I’m humbled to be a Leeds player and, hopefully, I can take confidence from this.
Fellow nominee Alex Walmsley was also plucked from the Championship, having joined St Helens from Batley Bulldogs.
“I never thought I’d make this progression,” said Hardaker of his transition to the top level.
“The chance I got in 2011 to get some games under my belt through injuries was big and then I got the number four shirt in 2012 and I played a few games at centre before going to full-back, where I am now.
“From there, I’ve blossomed, I got the number one shirt the year after and I’ve been at Leeds five years now which seems long and, from my Featherstone days, it’s incredible.
“I’ll have to pinch myself at the end of the year. Fev played a massive part and looking back to when I thought Leeds was the right choice, doing the things I’ve done has proved that decision to be right.”