ZAK HARDAKER has not always enjoyed a smooth relationship with Steve McNamara given, when the current Catalans Dragons chief was in charge of England, he threw the talented full-back out of his 2013 World Cup squad due to a discipline breach.
However, Hardaker – then of Leeds Rhinos, now of Super League leaders Castleford Tigers – also knows McNamara’s coaching quality, not just his firm stance, so he fully expects the former Bradford Bulls boss to start turning the French side around.
Castleford are in Perpignan this evening looking to take another step towards the League Leaders’ Shield.
But their opponents, unusually, are preparing for a relegation fight; they cannot budge from 10th spot regardless of tonight’s result.
McNamara, having quit as New Zealand Warriors assistant, only arrived at Stade Gilbert Brutus last month to replace the sacked Laurent Frayssinous.
Yet he has won just one of his opening four games and that was a chaotic affair against bottom-placed Leigh Centurions.
However, Hardaker – who was given his England debut by Hull-born McNamara in 2012 – said: “He’s a great coach.
“It will be tough for him at the moment as I don’t think he will be able to change too much with such a short amount of the season left.
“But what he can bring on is the camaraderie between the team, the belief in the players individually and collectively he can improve them, too.
“He can do that and hopefully that can work for them – just not Saturday. They are in the bottom four but are one of those teams who probably shouldn’t be there.
We want to finish top – that’s the main aim – and at the moment we just have to get two points. As the weeks go on the games get bigger, especially in the play-offs and that’s when you want to peak.Castleford Tigers’ Zak Hardaker
“On paper they have a really good team but I just think they don’t have that strength in depth. That’s what has let them down this year with a few injuries.
“Going there is always daunting, though, no matter where they are in the league table. They love playing in front of their fans. It will be tough, but we’ll see how we go.”
Castleford have won 11 consecutive league games raising hopes this genuinely could be the time they finally lift a first title since they were formed in 1926.
Hardaker, though, is the only player in their ranks to win a Super League Grand Final having done so three times with Leeds in 2011, 2012 and 2015 before his £150,000 permanent switch to Wheldon Road was confirmed only last month.
Will that experience prove useful in the weeks ahead as Tigers – eight points clear of second-placed Leeds before this round – look to complete the job?
“Hopefully. That’s what I try bringing to the lads,” said the 25-year-old from Pontefract.
“But we have some other players who can manage the game – Luke Gale, Paul McShane and Michael Shenton who I know’s in the centre but is a big influence.
“Adam Milner is up there too. He’ll be back soon and Junior Moors so we have players who know what to do in games.
“I’ve been there and done it in Grand Finals so will try and shed some light on it.”
Furthermore. Andy Lynch, set for his 450th Super League game today (Shenton makes his 250th such appearance) was a regular in Bradford Bulls’ 2005 title-winning campaign without actually featuring at Old Trafford.
Castleford, who have looked imperious at times this season, have had to battle their way to wins of late and, for example, the victory over Salford Red Devils last Friday was scruffy in parts.
But Hardaker maintained: “At this stage, getting ready to come into the Super 8s, for us it’s just about getting the points.
“We want to finish top – that’s the main aim – and at the moment we just have to get two points. As the weeks go on the games get bigger, especially in the play-offs and that’s when you want to peak. At the moment we’re quite happy not peaking yet – we’re happy getting points on the board.”
Some coaches could be tempted to give their stellar players a week off at this stage and in such a dominant position like Castleford’s, but Daryl Powell has named his strongest available squad for tonight’s encounter.
Hardaker said: “I don’t like resting but it’s up to Daryl.
“I didn’t really want to rest against Saints but it paid dividends for me.
“We have some injured blokes so maybe if we were fully fit he could – but I don’t know if there will be chance.”