Hardaker finally has his chance with England

Zak Hardaker.
Zak Hardaker.
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GIVEN people have spent most of the year debating who should get the England full-back jersey, there is a delicious irony around the fact Zak Hardaker and Sam Tomkins have spent most of the week building up to today’s international game sharing a hotel room.

Maybe that was one last test of their characters by head coach Steve McNamara as he evaluates the credentials of these two stellar talents. Or just pure pot luck.

Admittedly, the decision everyone was waiting for was eventually taken out of McNamara’s hands; Tomkins, the incumbent No 1, was not deemed fit for this afternoon’s clash against France due to the after-effects of a knee injury that ended his campaign with New Zealand Warriors in the NRL.

The 26-year-old, who commanded a £750,000 fee when he left Wigan Warriors two years ago, should be fine to resume when the three-Test series against New Zealand starts at Hull FC a week tomorrow.

However, by then, Hardaker, the effervescent Leeds Rhinos star recently crowned Steve Prescott Man of Steel following his brilliant displays in that club’s treble-winning campaign, hopes to have made himself undroppable.

In the meantime, just to make sure, has he ever felt like accidently stumbling into Tomkins’s dodgy knee while passing each other in the confines of their hotel room at the same plush St George’s Park facility used by England’s pampered football stars?

“Nah, I’d feel pretty bad about that,” laughed Hardaker, when speaking to The Yorkshire Post.

“Everyone is good friends in this England squad, everyone gets on, and I have been sharing a room with Sam so it doesn’t get much closer than that.

“He’s been doing his recovery this week and we’ve had a few chats about it; it’s just an injury that kept him out for a bit in New Zealand.

“Sam wants it to be 100 per cent and didn’t want to be coming into this game half-fit.

“But one man’s downfall is another man’s opportunity and I’m looking forward to Saturday.”

Hardaker – the younger of the two having just turned 24 a week ago – says there has been no awkwardness from their pairing together in that hotel room these last few days, unsurprising given McNamara has made fostering a great team ethos one of his mantras during his five years in charge.

“He’s good – we’ve more or less the same sleeping patterns, which helps,” added the former Featherstone Rovers player, whose own amalgam of remarkable defensive solidity and thrilling attacking verve has made him Super League’s stand-out player in 2015.

“We both like a lie-in and we more or less watch the same programmes, too.

“Most of the lads stay up as late as they can – not too late, mind – chatting, playing darts or Playstation, and then when we do go off, me and Sam don’t really talk too much about rugby.”

Remarkably, today’s fixture in Leigh is only Hardaker’s second game at international level having, until now, failed to add to his debut cap against Wales in 2012.

Some of that is down to Tomkins’s generally high form since bursting on to the scene with Wigan – Hardaker was an unused member of the Four Nations squad that toured Down Under 12 months ago – and some is down to Hardaker’s much-publicised off-field issues which, thankfully, seem now to be a thing of the past.

But he has never lost belief that he would get to this point where he could potentially usurp Tomkins who, admittedly, has been average this campaign in Auckland, partly leading to him returning to Wigan in 2016 a year earlier than originally planned.

Hardaker, who moved to Headingley as a teenager for £60,000 from part-timers Featherstone at the end of 2010, said: “When I was playing centre for Leeds, and then converted to full-back, a few guys asked me if I’d ever make it internationally with Sam Tomkins being such a fantastic player.

“They asked would I be able to dislodge him but I always had faith in myself.

“I’ve matured a bit, too, and am really confident about myself.

“It’s probably taken me two or three years to get to this point but that is fair enough.

“Playing for Leeds Rhinos has helped me. We’ve just had a great season and I feel good enough now to play for England and be more than capable of taking over that No 1 shirt.

“It’s down to performances at the end of the day. I’ve had a great year leading up to this but I’ve got to play my best rugby, now, as well.

“I’ve got an opportunity to do that and I have to grab it with both hands, showing Steve what I can do and hopefully retaining the jersey.”

Asked what he can recollect about his first game for England, shortly after being named Super League’s Young Player of the Year and having won a second Grand Final with Leeds, Hardaker said: “Right, I’ll give it a shot…

“I scored two tries and played pretty well, I think.

“It was down in Wrexham, the atmosphere was pretty good and the whole occasion of representing your country was really special.

“I’ve played for England against the Exiles since but this will count as a cap, only my second, and it is just brilliant to get another shot.

“I’ve always been there or thereabouts and now I am really looking forward to facing France.

“It’s going to be an interesting game; they are a strong outfit who are in practice for their own series (European Championship).”

He is set to link for the first time with George Williams, the exciting Wigan half-back and most recent winner of the same Super League Young Player of the Year award Hardaker lifted just three years ago.

Still only 20, Williams has impressed everyone, helping Wigan reach a third successive Grand Final and has also turned heads at England practice this week.

“He is a fantastic player, and just training with him you can see just how good he really is,” said Hardaker.

“He is still only a young lad but it’s great to have someone as young as George in there.

“He’s a really good runner of the ball and kicker and adds that extra dimension that we might not have had before.

“He’s full of enthusiasm, too, and sometimes you need that in these international games.

“It’ll be great to see him out there on Saturday winning his first cap and hopefully taking his chance while helping us to the win.”

Who knows when Williams’s next cap will be but it is inconceivable to think Hardaker, at the height of his powers, will have to wait as long for his third as he has his second.