ZAK Hardaker’s career was in the balance again last night after the England star was dropped by Castleford Tigers two days before their maiden Grand Final due to a breach of club rules.
The Dream Team full-back, named Man of Steel runner-up at an awards dinner on Tuesday, had been looking forward to facing former club Leeds Rhinos at Old Trafford tomorrow night.
However, Castleford coach Daryl Powell yesterday omitted Hardaker from his 19-man squad as the West Yorkshire club – chasing a first league title – prepared for the biggest game in their 91-year history.
In a brief statement, Tigers said: “Zak Hardaker is unavailable for selection due to a breach of club rules.
“The club will make no further comment at this point as full attention is focused on Saturday’s Grand Final.”
Although no details have been divulged, it is believed the nature of the breach means Hardaker’s place in the England World Cup squad could also be in jeopardy.
Wayne Bennett names his 24-man squad for the tournament Down Under on Monday with their first game against Australia in Melbourne on October 27.
Hardaker, undoubtedly, is a gifted talent having won three Super League titles, two Challenge Cups and a World Club Challenge with Leeds before inspiring Castleford to a first League Leaders’ Shield in this his debut season at Wheldon Road.
However, along the way he has encountered just as many pitfalls in a chequered history including admitting an assault, being thrown out of England’s World Cup squad four years ago and also earning a ban for homophobic abuse.
Last year, as reigning Man of Steel having helped Leeds to the treble in 2015, he admitted to “dark times” off the field and conceded he had alcohol issues and struggled with depression.
As the Rhinos’ season nosedived, so did he and, under another cloud and amid personal problems, he moved to NRL club Penrith Panthers on loan in June.
Castleford agreed a deal with Leeds in November to take Hardaker on a season-long loan for 2017.
He made an instant impact, producing arguably his career-best form as a central part of a free-flowing Tigers side that produced some stunning rugby, winning the League Leaders’ Shield by a record 10 points in front of second-placed Leeds.
Hardaker scored 13 tries in 30 games and, after reclaiming his England place in the mid-season victory over Samoa, Castleford paid Leeds a £150,000 fee in June to make the deal permanent on a four-and-a-half-year contract.
Only on Monday, when speaking to The Yorkshire Post at Old Trafford for a Grand Final interview due to be published today, Hardaker had talked about his improved psychological state after last year’s difficulties.
He said: “Everything’s really good. I think you just go through the good and bad times and you then find out and realise what sort of person you are.
“I know myself top to bottom now. I bet someone who’s not had any faults in their life can’t actually say what kind of person they are inside and out.
“I think you have to go through the really rough and bad times to find that inner self and what you are capable of doing. I feel that’s been pretty good for me and I’m quite glad it’s happened earlier in life than later on. I’m 25 now and I know what I’m all about.”
Whether his latest mistake ruins Castleford’s hopes of making history tomorrow night remains to be seen, but Leeds’s chances have certainly improved.
Hardaker’s place in the 19-man squad is taken by Jy Hitchcox, the former Featherstone Rovers winger who has played just nine times for Tigers this season, but who could now feature in front of 74,000 people at Manchester.
Oli Holmes returns for Andy Lynch, the respected 37-year-old prop whose wonderful career is now over. He never did get to play in a Grand Final. Hardaker may well be reminded of that.