ZAK HARDAKER is clearly a man of his word.
The Leeds Rhinos full-back insisted he would prove his worth this season after being thrown out of England’s World Cup camp in acrimonious circumstances last autumn.
He certainly has not wasted any time in doing so. The campaign is only two games old but, having scored at Hull KR on Sunday, Hardaker delivered another hugely involved performance last night to help the West Yorkshire club to a second successive win.
Warrington Wolves had suffered their biggest home defeat in seven years by losing 38-8 against St Helens eight days previously but they were much better value here.
However, they had no one of the cutting edge of Hardaker who scored two tries and produced a quality pass to send Tom Briscoe over for his fourth try in just two outings for the former champions.
The 22-year-old also came up with a vital tackle on Richie Myler in the closing stages, with Joel Moon also then denying Gareth O’Brien as Brian McDermott’s side clung on for the two points.
Leeds – who saw captain Kevin Sinfield limp off with six minutes to go with an ankle injury – looked set to go in at the break level at 6-6 despite having a welter of possession and attacking chances.
But Briscoe came up with his wonderful try in the 36th minute to finally give them that deserved lead which they never lost.
Having scored a hat-trick on debut at Hull KR, the England winger showed his finishing prowess once more with a brilliant 60m run down centrefield.
First he left Ryan Atkins – who had a wretched evening for Wire – rooted with his angled run, then he confidently beat full-back Stefan Ratchford before fending off Ben Currie to race between the posts.
Equally so, however, the former Hull FC man had Hardaker to thank too for the quality flat pass that created the initial gap.
Up to that point, Leeds had struggled for a decisive touch.
Danny McGuire had one of those rare halves of football where little went right for him, either mis-timing passes, fumbling or going himself when other options were better placed.
Similarly, when the hosts did break, their decision-making was left wanting.
Kallum Watkins, who looked threatening every time he took possession, surged clear but chose to try and beat Ratchford without looking towards Briscoe who was in support on his outside.
Likewise, Hardaker found space but also declined to find the new signing. Perhaps it was no surprise when Briscoe came looking infield for that try.
McDermott also saw his side have two efforts correctly ruled out by the video referees, Ryan Hall having been nudged into touch when getting a running chance outside Joel Monaghan, and Hardaker after the full-back just failed to ground McGuire’s clever grubber.
Hall had made an uncharacteristic error to gift Warrington the opening try of the night in the 10th minute, failing to get off the ground as Joel Monaghan collected O’Brien’s crossfield kick.
Ratchford converted and the visitors looked confident, controlling the early stages with Leeds initially struggling for cohesion.
However, when O’Brien misjudged a kick into touch, the home side struck, albeit with a touch of fortune.
Watkins’s pass to Briscoe looked well forward but the winger was allowed to advance and he kicked infield when Hardaker finished off.
Sinfield improved the 20th-minute score, as he did with Briscoe’s later, and Leeds pressed on.
Warrington did not help themselves, Leeds-born Atkins enduring a torrid time whether being out-stripped by the electric Watkins or spilling possession in three successive handlings.
Admittedly, the ex-England centre did get back to thwart Watkins once in that first period and again at the start of the second but, on this evidence, it is clear once again why national coach Steve McNamara rates the Leeds man – playing his 100th game for the club – so highly.
Warrington, who gave Super League debuts to 20-year-old Academy winger Gene Ormsby and ex-Featherstone Rovers prop Anthony England, showed renewed vigour at the start of the second period.
O’Brien’s grubber caused problems as Hall and McGuire failed to deal with the bobbling kick and Ben Evans nearly touched down.
Hardaker then came up with a truly stunning play. A huge gap materialised for Ratchford 15m out and the Warrington full-back, seemed certain to score.
However, the Leeds full-back somehow managed to not only slow his progress but then pick him up and push him back as the England Knights man looked to stretch over.
Soon after, Hardaker showed his class at the other end too, darting over for his second and, effectively, match-winning try to ease the pressure on his side.
Sinfield converted but Warrington, to their credit, never let up and Ben Westwood’s 76th-minute try, improved by Ratchford, made for a tense finish.
Stevie Ward made a successful return to action for Leeds, his first game of any sort since injuring his shoulder at Hull KR 10 months ago but, fittingly, it was another of their immensely talented youngsters – Hardaker – who booted the ball into touch to bring an enthralling game to its close.
Leeds: Hardaker; Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall; Sinfield, McGuire; Leuluai, Burrow, Peacock, Ablett, Delaney, Clarkson. Substitutes: Aiton, Bailey, Ward, Singleton.
Warrington: Ratchford; J Monaghan, Bridge, Atkins, Ormsby; O’Brien, Myler; Hill, Higham, Asotasi, Waterhouse, Westwood, Grix. Substitutes: England, M Monaghan, Evans, Currie.
Referee: B Thaler (Wakefield)