What Zak Hardaker’s comments tell us about Wigan Warriors departure and Leeds Rhinos return

This morning something that has been unthinkable for around half a decade was confirmed: Leeds Rhinos have re-signed Zak Hardaker.

The Rhinos were one of many clubs back in 2010 targeting the young fullback who was making a name for himself at Featherstone. The Rhinos beat the likes of Warrington to his signature over a decade ago and within a year Hardaker was winning a first Super League title scoring in the final against St Helens.

In a very similar scenario to that one, the Rhinos fought off competition from the likes of Featherstone and Leigh with Castleford and co reportedly keeping tabs on the situation to sign him again in 2022.

He joins the club for the remainder of this season set to debut for a second time against Hull KR come Friday.

Hardaker’s first spell at the club saw him win three Super League titles and two Challenge Cups. Meanwhile he was also crowned Young Player of the Year in 2012 and then Man of Steel as Leeds won the treble in 2015.

With lots of found memories at the club, Hardaker explained on the Rhinos website the reasoning behind why he chose Leeds.

“It is a strange feeling at the moment, I suppose a bit like going back to your old school,” Hardaker said, “I have fond memories of my time at Leeds and the opportunity to come back this year is really special. I have spoken to Rohan Smith so we can get a feel for each other, he is arriving on the same week and it was good to understand what he is looking for. He explained his vision for what this year looks like for Leeds as a team and explained the journey he had been on in his coaching career. I am sure we are both really eager to get over and do our best for the club.”

So, new coach Rohan Smith played his part in the decision making. An important development for the Rhinos as they look to cement a new culture and identity which revolves around Smith going forward. Jamie Jones-Buchanan promised he’d have the final say and it seems he has and perhaps couldn’t overlook a player of Hardaker’s quality given Leeds’ current plight.

Hardaker also explained why the way he left Wigan wasn’t the way he wanted to leave such a prestigious club: “The way I left Wigan wasn’t the way I wanted to leave the club but I would like to thank everyone there for the opportunity to play for Wigan. This started last year when I wanted to get a chance to come home back to Yorkshire with my family. I have got that opportunity thankfully with Leeds and I can’t wait to play in those Friday night games in front of a packed South Stand again.”

So, it seems the reasons for his departure developed in 2021 as rumours originally suggested. Credit should be given to Hardaker then for a strong start to the season with Wigan. In fact, his last game for the Warriors – which came in the Challenge Cup against Wakefield – was one of his best this season.

As for the exact circumstances behind the release, they remain unclear whilst what Matt Peet described as “dipping” below the Wigan standards is still shrouded in mystery despite Zak’s comments. That said, it is clear that no matter what happened a desire to be closer to home was at the heart of these shock developments that have brought him back to Headingley.

The fullback also explained that when he was last at Leeds, he didn’t relish it as much as he should have and is excited for a second chance: “It is definitely a case of ‘you don’t realise what you’ve got until it’s gone’ and I think I let my time at the Rhinos the first time pass me by. Even as an away player it is special to play at Headingley, and I am really keen to get going as soon as possible now. In the short term I need to get to know the boys, play in as many games as I can and show what I can do for the Rhinos.”

Unsurprisingly, there were many suitors for Zak following his Wigan release, so how did the Rhinos secure his services ahead of the competition?

It seems Chief Executive Gary Hetherington was the key as he has often been with big decisions at Leeds such as Rohan Smith’s appointment: “When I left Wigan, I wasn’t thinking of any specific club to go to but just wanted to get back to Yorkshire and see what happened from there. Gary spoke to my agent and I went to meet him. He brought me up to speed with where the team is at and my focus is on playing well this year for the boys and enjoying my rugby. It is a very talented squad, albeit with injuries to key players at the moment. After our history together, I was surprised and overwhelmed when Leeds came calling and I want to make the most of this opportunity, I think it is a deal that works well for everyone concerned.”

“Overwhelmed” by a return to Leeds then, the prodigal son has completed the most unlikely of comebacks to have a second crack at being a Rhinos player. It seems he’s as shocked as anyone that fate has brought him back, but he’s clearly determined to make the most of this short term deal.

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