FULL-BACK Zak Hardaker has set his sights on becoming part of a new golden generation after committing his long-term future to Leeds Rhinos.
The 23-year-old, who already has two Grand Final rings as well as Challenge Cup and World Club Challenge winner’s medals, has signed an extended contract which will keep him at Leeds until the end of 2019.
News of his decision to remain at Headingley was announced on the day Leeds play host to St Helens in what is being billed as Super League’s match of the season.
Hardaker, who began his career as a winger and also played in the centres before taking over from Brent Webb as Leeds’s first-choice full-back in 2012, has scored 60 tries in 124 appearances since signing moving from Featherstone Rovers ahead of the 2011 season.
He was Super League’s young player of the year in 2012 and selected in the competition’s Dream Team last season.
With Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai all in their final year on the playing staff, Hardaker’s new deal is a vote of confidence in Leeds and what the club could achieve over future seasons.
“Over the last decade, the fans have been used to a team that grew up together with Kevin Sinfield, Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow and Jamie Jones-Buchanan,” Hardaker said.
“Obviously things are going to change over the next few years, but there is a group of young players here now who want to follow in their footsteps and make our own history here with the Rhinos. It is a really exciting time to be at the club and I am looking forward to the future and achieving more success over the years ahead.”
Hardaker has been involved in a number of controversies on and off the field, including an early departure from England’s 2013 World Cup squad and a five-match ban last year for verbally abusing a match official.
He was dropped for one match earlier this season for disciplinary reasons, but Leeds have stood by him and he has rewarded them by producing some of his best form since returning to the team.
Coach Brian McDermott believes Hardaker boasts the potential to become one of the world’s best players.
“I am really pleased for Zak himself that he has agreed this new contract and committed his future to the club and our competition,” McDermott stated.
“Zak has had some well publicised ups and downs in his career, but there is no doubting his ability on the field.
“His work ethic and commitment on and off the field this season can not be questioned and I think over the next few years he will mature into a world class player.”
Hardaker is widely admired at other Super League clubs and in Australia’s NRL and he would have had no shortage of big-money offers had he decided to move on.
McDermott added: “It should not be underestimated how big an achievement it is by the club to keep the likes of Zak, Kallum Watkins, Ryan Hall, Joel Moon and Tom Briscoe at our club on long term contracts.”
Hardaker was among the try scorers in last Friday’s 24-6 win at Hull, which will send Leeds into tonight’s Challenge Cup holders versus champions fixture in high spirits.
The hosts could welcome back play-maker Danny McGuire, who missed last week’s game due to an ankle injury. McGuire said: “I am hoping to play.
“I have improved loads over the last few days and I am really positive about my chances.
“I am feeling good. The injury felt bad at the time and I was sore for a few days afterwards, then it gradually started to get better,” he added.
Adam Cuthbertson (calf) is also included in Leeds’s initial 19-man squad and fellow forward Mitch Garbutt could make his debut, just six days after arriving from his native Australia.
The former Melbourne Storm and Brisbane Broncos man trained with his new team-mates for the first time on Monday and has not played for a month, but is also included in Leeds’s initial squad.
Saints will select from the 17 players who beat Widnes Vikings in a Challenge Cup quarter-final last Sunday, plus Lewis Charnock and Matty Fleming.