Leeds Rhinos v Wigan: Hardaker confident Rhinos are full package

Leeds Rhinos' Zak Hardaker and Tom Briscoe.
Leeds Rhinos' Zak Hardaker and Tom Briscoe.
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given that no-one has made more metres than Zak Hardaker in Super League this season, it is easy to assume that the Leeds Rhinos full-back is in a hurry and is hard to stop.

He has amassed almost 1500m so far which, for anyone interested in the odd statistic, is a pretty impressive feat and says plenty about his form and elusiveness.

However, it is no surprise as all his Leeds team are on the move and gathering pace; they head into this evening’s home game with champions Wigan Warriors as the competition’s form side, their grasp on top spot perhaps only briefly released following St Helens’ win against hapless London Broncos last night.

If the West Yorkshire club can secure a sixth successive victory – no easy task given their visitors are on an eight-match winning run themselves – they will sit at the summit once more.

Of course, it is not solely the attacking threat and potency of Hardaker and his fellow backs such as Ryan Hall and Tom Briscoe that is driving their form.

Leeds are presently the stingiest team in the land, conceding on average barely eight points per fixture; any opponent has to work desperately hard to gain even the merest hint of hope against Brian McDermott’s merciless side.

Snaring Wigan’s obvious offensive quality – they are Super League’s deadliest strikers, averaging 34 points each game – will be the latest test of that new-found resolve but Hardaker insists they are ready.

He says their current mindset stems from a fallow campaign last season when they failed to win a trophy for the first time since the 22-year-old joined the club from Featherstone Rovers at the end of 2010. This current Leeds side, though, is fast looking capable of being the best of recent times.

“We do think we’ve got the full package this year,” said Hardaker, whose side leaked almost 19 points per game in 2013.

“We’ve been putting things into place year after year. Some have been working, some haven’t but it’s taken that length of time to figure out what has worked.

“It’s come together really well now but we’re not going to be jumping about celebrating yet as we all know anything can happen – especially in the Challenge Cup.”

Hardaker’s two tries against St Helens in the Cup set up a quarter-final home tie with Leigh Centurions as Leeds prepare to hopefully end their long wait for success in that competition.

Their determination to hold out in that game, in which they prospered 32-12, was plain to see.

Hardaker explained: “It’s about people believing in each other. They believe the inside defender can tackle their man. There’s a lot of trust that is going on with each other and that’s paying dividends. The structures we put in place pre-season are really coming up well and the willingness to work for each other is obvious.

“We really want to win something this year. We want to be top of the table when it comes to the end, we want to be in the Challenge Cup final and winning it and likewise the Grand Final, too.

“The desire and ambition is there in everyone to go win the lot and it’s no surprise the defence has been so good this year; we’re all turning up for each other.”

Leeds have not finished first since 2009, their Grand Finals successes in 2011 and the following year both famously coming from fifth spot.

Wigan, with a game in hand after their earlier World Club Challenge jaunt to Sydney, will have something to say about that as will Saints and, considering their own start, Castleford Tigers. But tonight will offer Leeds a chance to prove their worth.

Hardaker added: “If you look at the last eight results, Wigan have won them all.

“They are looking really good and really sharp. They dropped a few young lads in against Bradford over Easter and still put some massive points (84-6) on them. We know they’re a really good team.

“We actually under-estimated them the other year when they brought loads of young lads to Headingley and gave us a really good spanking so we know now you can never do that.

“We’ve confidence from that Saints win, though, and we’ll want to see that come through against Wigan.”

They will become familiar foes given Leeds also face Wigan – who knocked them out of last year’s play-offs – at Magic Weekend in a little over a fortnight’s time.

Meanwhile, Hardaker has bounced back impressively after being ejected from England’s World Cup squad following an incident that also led to him being fined £2,500 by Leeds and handed a written warning for breaking the club’s code of conduct.

“I trained pretty hard pre-season and really had a look at what I want out of this year,” he said.

“I haven’t got anything to prove to anyone apart from myself, to be fair, and the team. I’m working hard on my game.”

Asked whether he thinks he will be recalled by England coach Steve McNamara for the Four Nations this autumn, Hardaker said: “I’m not sure. I’m not sure what he’s thinking. But I’ll just play how I am and if I do, I do. If I don’t, I don’t. It’s his call. He’s manager.

“My full focus is on Leeds this year and that’s what I’ll be putting my effort in to.”