LEEDS Rhinos head coach Brian McDermott fully expects Zak Hardaker to return from his controversial five-game ban by regaining the form that has made the England full-back “one of the best players in the world.”
He is instantly recalled for tonight’s much-anticipated fixture with Castleford Tigers having served the suspension for homophobic abuse in the Warrington defeat at the end of May.
Hardaker has already responded positively to one setback – being thrown out of England’s World Cup squad last November for a breach of discipline – by producing some brilliant displays for Leeds at the start of the season.
And McDermott said: “I think he has more of an incentive now as after the England episode, that was a tough call on Zak.
“He had a long time to wait before he could do anything about it. He had all of pre-season, he lost his holiday, we started a new season off and who knows?
“But from where he left off this time he was one of the best full-backs in the world before he got suspended and I think that’s his incentive – to get back to that form again.
“That’s a good carrot dangling in front of him to get back to being one of the best players in the world.”
McDermott concedes the 22-year-old has struggled during the enforced absence but revealed the pair did enjoy taking a training session at Manchester Canalsiders, the sport’s first gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender club, earlier this week.
“It’s been tough for him,” said the Leeds coach. “I think the controversial circumstances have probably added to that as well.
“But Zak’s got on with it and realised he made an error. He’s done some work in the community.
“By invite he’s gone to the Canalsiders which is a gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender club.
“Zak and myself went over there and we had a great evening. And there was some good players as well, a couple of lesbians that were fantastic players, one of them who we’d almost sign up ourselves.
“They had a bit more of a robust attitude. We went over there with a fair amount of humility but came away having enjoyed it.
“From everything, I suppose, Zak has got out of it that what he said was wrong and while he still professes to this day he never meant true hurt by what he said, we always realised the type of terminology is not acceptable any more and that’s the good thing that has come out of this.”
Someone who is less enamoured by Hardaker’s return is Ben Jones-Bishop, the England Knights full-back who has scored three tries in five games – a rare extended run – during his colleague’s ban, but is now dropped.
Jones-Bishop, who joins Salford Red Devils at the end of the season, was injured in Friday’s win over Hull KR but McDermott admitted: “He wanted to play and put his hand up to so I’ve had a dilemma and said to Bish’ ‘well you’re not playing anyway – I’m going to play Zak.’
“That is a really big call against Bish’ and tough to call. He has been in good form and been a good addition to the team. But then Zak before he got his suspension was one of the best full-backs in the world.
“Bish’ is not happy. I don‘t expect him to be. But that’s not to say he’s not going to feature again this year whether that’s through squad rotation or injury.”
Salford owner Marwan Koukash would like to bring forward the player’s move, especially as Jones-Bishop has struggled for game-time due to the form of Hardaker and wingers Ryan Hall and Tom Briscoe.
“It would be ideal for Salford wouldn’t it, but that doesn’t suit us,” insisted McDermott. “We need Bish’. I’m sure he wants to finish off with us in good fashion.”
The Leeds coach, meanwhile, admits tonight’s game is one of the most eagerly-awaited derbies in years given Castleford’s growing presence.
Their West Yorkshire rivals remain on course for a first-ever top-four finish and face Widnes Vikings next month for a place in the Challenge Cup final.
Whoever wins will go top, if only for 48 hours, and McDermott said: “This is probably the biggest Leeds-Cas’ clash we’ve had since I’ve been coach.
“They’ve had the best form since maybe the early times of Terry Matterson but have probably exceeded those as well.
“There’s only two points between all the top five and I think that pressure is needed.
“I wouldn’t like to be six points clear; it’s good that people are nipping at your heels. The peloton is catching isn’t it and we’ve just got to make sure we stay on the bike.”