Castleford Tigers v Wigan Warriors – Zak Hardaker braced for hostile reception on Wheldon Road return

WELCOME BACK: Wigan's Zak Hardaker runs at Sydney Roosters' Mitchell Aubusson during the World Club Challenge match in February. Picture: Martin Rickett/PA
WELCOME BACK: Wigan's Zak Hardaker runs at Sydney Roosters' Mitchell Aubusson during the World Club Challenge match in February. Picture: Martin Rickett/PA
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CASTLEFORD TIGERS coach Daryl Powell concedes it is inevitable Zak Hardaker will receive a hostile reception on Friday night when the former England full-back makes his first return to the club following his controversial exit.

Hardaker was brilliant for Castleford as they surged to the League Leaders Shield in 2017 but infamously was suspended just two days before the Grand Final due to a failed drugs test.

Castleford Tigers' head coach Daryl Powell.' Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Castleford Tigers' head coach Daryl Powell.' Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Tigers, of course, went on to lose against fierce rivals Leeds Rhinos and many fans still blame the player for missing out on what was arguably their best-ever chance of becoming champions for the first time.

Ex-Rhinos star Hardaker was sacked and, after serving a 14-month suspension for cocaine use, made his return with Wigan Warriors this season.

The former Man of Steel will make his 10th successive appearance for them at his former club.

Powell – who also coached the Pontefract-born player at Featherstone Rovers – admitted: “He’ll get the usual one (reception) for a player that’s left a team in circumstances that you wouldn’t want.

He’ll get the usual one (reception) for a player that’s left a team in circumstances that you wouldn’t want. No doubt it will be pretty vocal. I’ve had them myself going back to certain clubs. I don’t think he’ll worry about it too much. We’ve just got to make sure he doesn’t play well.

Castleford Tigers’ head coach, Daryl Powell

“No doubt it will be pretty vocal. I’ve had them myself going back to certain clubs. I don’t think he’ll worry about it too much. We’ve just got to make sure he doesn’t play well.

“I thought he started the season off a little bit slow but he looks like he’s getting some form back now.

“Carrying the ball out of backfield is one of his key strengths and he looks like he’s doing that as he usually does. He’s a good player, he’s made mistakes and you move on; that’s life.”

Hardaker is confident he can deal with boos from fans who once adored him.

“It will be mixed emotions for me,” he said. “It was a sad situation in the way I left the club and I’m sure it’s going to be a hostile atmosphere for myself.

“I’ve been booed before and been called every name under the sun but I’ll take it on the chin and get on with it.”

Castleford are aiming to avoid a third successive defeat and are desperate to quickly put to bed last week’s nerve-shredding 21-20 Golden Point loss at Leeds.

Granted, it will not be easy, especially given their ongoing issues at half-back with Luke Gale, Jamie Ellis and Jordan Rankin all injured and hooker Paul McShane – who started at No7 at Headingley – beginning a three-game ban.

Forwards Junior Moors and Chris Clarkson were also injured in that defeat, but Mitch Clark and Nathan Massey could return.

Champions Wigan have started to find some form following their poor start to the season which has also been blighted by off-field problems.

The fiasco of Shaun Edwards’s indecision about taking over as head coach in 2020 continues while it emerged earlier this week their Australian prop Gabe Hamlin has been suspended by the RFL after being charged with a UK Anti-Doping violation.

This also comes shortly after Wigan winger Craig Mullen was charged with drink-driving. But Warriors vanquished Catalans Dragons 42-0 last week and Powell insisted: “It’s going to be a big challenge for us.

“But I’m confident we’re going to play well. We’re looking forward to it and we are up for the fight.”