Zak Hardaker has always been an enigma in the sport of rugby league and someone who has divided fans of the sport. Here’s a look at his chequered past and whether he can turn his unwavering talent into pure gold for a newly-managed Wigan side in 2019 and beyond.
Since his playing career began, Hardaker has been a breath of fresh air, starting in 2010 with his home town club, Featherstone Rovers. He was an enthusiastic youngster who just wanted to play Rugby League.
After the Leeds Rhinos picked him up in 2011, he went on to win the Man of Steel in 2015 after an excellent career as a fullback. In 2012, Zak was awarded the number 4 jersey, taking over from long time servant Keith Senior.
After a successful 2014, where Leeds defended their Super League title, Hardaker was also rewarded with a selection in the Super League Dream Team. However, 2015 was his real breakthrough season though, with the 26-year old winning the treble with Leeds and also picking up Man of Steel.
Zak has always been a friendly player who is very sociable with the fans and the media. After four years at Headingley, he decided it was time to switch his career up and move to Australia, where he endured a yearlong spell at the Penrith Panthers.
In November of 2016, Hardaker made the most controversial move of his career, signing for the Castleford Tigers ahead of the 2017 season. In that year, the Tigers won the league leaders shield and made the Super League Grand Final, losing to Leeds.
It was an excellent season for Zak, who was their number one and was a fan’s favourite along the likes of Luke Gale, Paul McShane, Greg Eden and Jesse Sene-Lafao. However, his season ended on a sour note as it was confirmed one week before the Old Trafford showcase that Zak was to be left out of the 19-man squad.
Fans were confused as to why but it was later confirmed that he’d tested positive for Drugs use. His contract was terminated in February of 2018, just weeks after the new season has commenced. That left Zak looking at either a new club, before it was then confirmed he was to serve a 14 month ban for his actions.
The Transfer to Wigan
In a move a lot of fans were expecting, Zak Hardaker was announced as a Wigan Warriors player on May 18, with the immense talent able to represent the Cherry and Whites from the beginning of the new campaign.
The question is, what will he bring to the table as a Wigan player? Can Zak curb his naivety and win over the fans in Super League once again after making headlines for so many years as a Rhino and a Tiger?
Before it was announced Hardaker had signed, it was confirmed that Sam Tomkins was to leave for the South of France, hence it’s an ideal replacement from a Wigan perspective. When on form, Zak is probably one of the best in his position.
The things Ben Barba is doing with St Helens this year are reminiscent of the performances Hardaker was producing in 2015 with Leeds and in 2016 with Castleford. In his time at Leeds and Castleford, Hardaker was a fantastic player, very skilful and with a keen eye for the try-line.
It remains to be seen what exactly we expect from Zak Hardaker as a Wigan player and whether it is the right move for him? I personally think it’s the right move for him because he has proved he can be a top player and, as explained above, Zak is unplayable when on top of his game.
In terms of what we can expect, we’ll imagine that he would study how Sam Tomkins played as a Wigan Warrior. They may be totally different players but the fact is this; before and since his return from the New Zealand Warriors, Sam played a brilliant role in the Wigan side.
In his time there, Tomkins has won many trophies. Hardaker has done much the same at Leeds, securing Challenge Cup and Grand Final silverware in his four years at the club, so if he can return to his form of old, I can’t see him having many issues becoming a Warriors cult hero!
Although, a further question is whether he will he pick up his form of old, just look at the re-emergence of Josh Charnley, who returned to League action with the Warrington Wolves but has certainly picked up where he left off, scoring 16 tries in 13 league games since his return.
It is yet to be seen if we will be shown the old Zak, or one who has fell out of love with the game. With Stefan Ratchford’s performances as Warrington’s fullback, he is a strong option for Wayne Bennett as England’s number one, alongside Gareth Widdop and Jonny Lomax, so will Hardaker’s performances warrant an England selection from 2019 and beyond?
Plenty of questions remain unanswered for now, but it is looking like an exciting next chapter in Zak Hardaker’s eventful career.