ZAK HARDAKER is a shock inclusion in Wayne Bennett’s Great Britain squad - just two years after missing England’s World Cup Down Under due to a drugs ban.
The Wigan Warriors full-back is a surprise selection in the 24-man squad to tour New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.
Bennett has picked Australian-born half-backs - newly-crowned Man of Steel Jackson Hastings and Warrington Wolves’ Blake Austin - as well as Scotland full-back Lachlan Coote and Ireland back-row Joe Philbin.
However, they were all mooted beforehand whereas former Leeds Rhinos star Hardaker has not been involved in any of Bennett’s England or Great Britain squads since being tested positive for cocaine in September 2017.
The former Man of Steel was a certainty to feature for England in the World Cup that year having helped Castleford Tigers finish top for the first time in their history, reach the Grand Final and earn selection in the Super League Dream Team.
But Hardaker’s career looked on the rocks when a positive drugs test came to light just two days before their Old Trafford meeting with Leeds.
He was sacked by Castleford and eventually handed a 14-month ban, only making his comeback in Wigan colours this season.
Hardaker, 27, has impressed for the Warriors, proving his class once more without quite reaching the heights of his Man of Steel form with Leeds in 2015 or Castleford two years ago.
When Bennett opted against picking him in his revised England Elite Performance squad in July and then again in his Great Britain Performance Squad last month, it seemed he was not even in the picture for a Test recall.
The Australian left out Warrignton’s in-form Stefan Ratchford and only had Catalans Dragons’ Sam Tomkins on stand-by, seemingly paving the way for Saints’ Australian-born Grand Final winner Coote to claim the No1 jersey.
However, Hardaker has come in from nowhere to claim a seat on the plane to fly out to Sydney on Wednesday perhaps with his ability to play centre influencing Bennett’s call.
The coach has selected SIX half-backs and only two natural centres - Hull FC’s Jake Connor and Wigan’s Oliver Gildart - after St Helens’ Mark Percival was injured in Saturday’s Grand Final win over Salford Red Devils.
Hardaker played centre in his last Test for England against Samoa in Sydney in May 2017.
As expected, Saints winger Tommy Makinson - the reigning Golden Boot holder - is also out of the Lions squad after being injured at Old Trafford.
Saints hooker James Roby and loose forward Morgan Knowles also pulled out of contention due to injuries suffered before the final.
With England captain Sean O’Loughlin and vice-captain Sam Burgess also sidelined, James Graham will lead the Lions as they make their first appearance on the international stage since 2007.
“No-one plays with more pride and passion than he does for his country, I can tell you,” said Bennett, about the 34-year-old prop.
Great Britain will play four Tests on consecutive Saturdays on their first trip to the southern hemisphere since the 2006 Tri-Nations series.
The itinerary includes a game against a Tongan Invitational XIII in Hamilton on October 26, followed by two matches against New Zealand in Auckland and Christchurch, and ending on November 16 in Port Moresby with a first Test in Papua New Guinea since 1996.
On selecting his 24-man squad, Bennett added: “It was pretty tough actually, with a lot of players in contention. A couple of guys got injured and that’s taken a bit of the pressure off, and given a couple of other guys opportunities.
“I think we’ve got a pretty good squad which is more than representative of the best players in the game in England and Australia.”
Coote, Jonny Lomax, Luke Thompson and Alex Walmsley have been rewarded for their contribution to Saints’ first title-winning season since 2014 – and they have been joined by two members of the Salford Red Devils team they beat at Old Trafford on Saturday night: Hastings and Hull FC-bound Josh Jones.
Confirmation of Jones’ selection came on Sunday morning in an eventful weekend which continued with his wedding that afternoon.
He will now fly to Sydney as part of the second group of Great Britain players to head Down Under, where they will watch England play in the Downer World Cup Nines at the weekend before moving on to New Zealand.
The other seven players added to the 11 members of England’s World Cup Nines squad whose GB selection had already been confirmed are: Austin, Chris Hill and Philbin from Warrington Wolves; John Bateman and Josh Hodgson from Canberra Raiders; and Gildart and Hardaker from Wigan Warriors.
Graham is the only member of the squad who has previously played for Great Britain, winning five caps in 2006-7 – although he has not represented the Rugby League Lions in the southern hemisphere, as all five appearances came at home.
As he has since won a record 44 England caps, he is in line to complete a rare half century of Test caps this autumn.
“It’s very emotional for me," said Graham of the prospect of leading Great Britain for the first time.
"It will have a history and tradition, and it’s something that resounds with the fans and our sport. They will be four incredibly difficult matches, but the difficulty rating was always going to be high. It’s a challenge for us, but as a group I think we’re going to grow into that challenge.”
GREAT BRITAIN 24-man squad: Graham (c), Widdop, Austin, Clark, Hill, Hughes, Philbin, Bateman, Hodgson, Whitehead, T Burgess, Connor, Coote, Lomax, Thompson, Walmsley, Gildart, Hardaker, Williams, Hastings, Jones, Hall, McGillvary, Trueman.