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Long Read Interview: Zak Hardaker

If there is one player that has settled in seamlessly to a new home in 2022, it is Leeds Rhinos’ Zak Hardaker.

After exiting the Wigan Warriors earlier in the season, Hardaker made the trip back home to his native Yorkshire, hoping to secure a deal with a team in his home county.

He did – and it was the club at which his whole Super League career began – the Leeds Rhinos.

Now, the 30-year-old has been in scintillating form for the Rhinos since joining, helping his new team climb into a play-off spot with just three games of the regular season left and Hardaker couldn’t be happier under new head coach Rohan Smith.

“I’m enjoying it, I’m enjoying being back home,” Hardaker told Serious About Rugby League.

“It’s been good and I’m enjoying how we are playing as a club. The players have been brilliant since I’ve been here as well all the staff and fans.

“It’s a great environment to be in at the moment. Rohan’s given us freedom to play and he lets you express yourself as an individual.

“We’ve got some really talented players that can come up with special plays. As a team we can work around those and he came in three months ago new to the team and I was new to the team.

“He’s been letting us express ourselves and he’s given confidence to the rest of the lads, he doesn’t get bogged down too much with details. It’s a bit of freedom to be honest, he lets you enjoy yourself.

“Training has been fun and he has been fun too. He’s got a few jokes about him too. He’s an overall good coach and good bloke. He lets us play how we want within reason.

“When things don’t go quite right, he’s not the one that throws the book at you, he’s brilliant at the no pressure kind of stuff.”

In terms of winning the Grand Final, Hardaker knows just what it takes having been part of a number of successful Leeds teams over the years.

And, despite being sat in fifth, he has the experience of winning it from that exact position, too.

“I wouldn’t say it’s out of reach, we are trying to tick off game by game, week by week looking at the Grand Final is a bit too far ahead of us.

“We are confident going into games, there is no reason why we can’t reach the Grand Final. I’ve been fortunate to be part of a Leeds team that has won it from fifth before.

“The way we have been playing the last few weeks, we are heading in the right direction. We want to finish as higher up the table as we possibly can which will give us a better chance heading into the play-offs. We’ve got to be really switched on.”

The road to Old Trafford is indeed a tricky one as Hardaker, Leeds and the rest of Super League will have to play a high number of games in a very short space of time with the Rhinos coming up against the Huddersfield Giants on Wednesday night – something which doesn’t bother the fullback.

“It’s a strange one but I’m not one of those that gets bogged down. I’m not regimented, it doesn’t bother me whether it’s a Wednesday, Sunday or Monday.

“Games are coming thick and fast so we are barely getting recovery sorted before we are playing again. That’s a stress factor about getting the body right.

“If you have a few niggles after games, you get enough time to heal them and go agin but with three games in 12 days it isn’t going to be that manageable, but as rugby players we are used to things not happening your way and we need to get on with it. Everyone else is in the same boat.”

Hardaker also revealed, exclusively to Serious About Rugby League, just how many were interested in getting his signature before his return to Leeds Rhinos from Wigan Warriors earlier this season.

“When I was coming back to Yorkshire, I wanted to come back home and any club was going to be ideal for me just to come closer to home,” Hardaker said.

“Featherstone were interested in signing me as were a few others, but when I found out about Leeds, they were in really in need of me and I was really happy to sign with them. It was a really good fit and it was a good signing.

“There were about four or five other clubs that would have liked to sign me for this year but obviously Leeds was a perfect fit for me. It was a club I knew quite well and that I’d been a part of with some good friends there. It was an easy move.”

Despite everything now seeming rosy in the garden for Hardaker at Leeds, he did experience a rocky start to life back at Headingley with a suspected seizure delaying his second debut for the club.

However, that has never bothered him since with the experienced international utility back able to become a regular fixture at the Rhinos and help the club turn their season around.

“I’m fine and been fine ever since it happened. I forget that even happened and it seems like it was last year,” Hardaker said of the suspected seizure to Serious About Rugby League.

“It was one of those things that happened but I’m alright. I’ve not been thinking about it too much to be fair.”

With the 30-year-old playing some of his best rugby of his career, there have been calls from expectant Leeds fans to hand Hardaker another contract – and he wants that to happen.

When asked if he will stay at Headingley, the fullback replied: “I think so, I’m really enjoying it here. I’m waiting for Gary (Hetherington) to offer me a deal so behind closed doors that is getting sorted.

“I think I would like to stay here but I know what rugby league is like and I know what can happen on the turn of a coin so I’m getting on with my rugby and my life and letting my rugby do the talking – hopefully that will get sorted soon.”

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