Hardaker is eager to emulate first year’s success

AS THE accolades keep raining down on him, Leeds Rhinos’ burgeoning star Zak Hardaker readily accepts he has to continually keep pinching himself.

Being named Super League’s Young Player of the Year on Monday night was swiftly followed by a call-up to England’s squad for the Autumn International series.

Now the youngster, who not so long ago was playing part-time with Featherstone Rovers, is contemplating a second successive Grand Final win on Saturday.

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Hardaker seized his chance last season, scoring 12 tries in 15 games with Rhinos, including one in their Old Trafford success against St Helens.

Warrington Wolves are the opponents this time around, the side who beat Leeds in the Challenge Cup Final only six weeks ago.

Hardaker, 20, appeared at Wembley too and admitted: “After last year and the result we got, I had to pinch myself thinking it’s only my first year and look what I’ve achieved.

“But the second year’s going the same way too. We need to do a job on Saturday to complete it exactly the same and hopefully we can.

“But it’s just been a remarkable two years for me.

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“I was at the awards dinner two years ago with Featherstone to get the Championship Young Player of the Year and that was overwhelming because it was the first one I’d been to.

“But now I’ve been to the Man of Steel too and it keeps getting better. I’ll be really glad if it keeps going like this.

“I always backed myself to succeed but you never know when it will happen and it has come really fast.”

Although he signed as a winger, Hardaker made his impact last term at centre where he also featured when Leeds defeated Manly in the World Club Challenge earlier this year.

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However, coach Brian McDermott swapped him to full-back in mid-season after an injury to Brent Webb and he has proved even more dynamic.

England boss Steve McNamara has named him in his 24-man squad which will fly out to a high-altitude training camp in South Africa on Wednesday and, if Man of Steel Sam Tomkins fails to shrug off a knee injury, he could debut later this month against Wales.

“It’s brilliant to get picked in there and I’m really proud,” added Hardaker, who scored for England Knights against Cumbria last autumn and will turn 21 during the trip.

“I’m looking forward to it and it tops off a good year. But first we have Warrington.”

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Leeds, clearly, have history with the Cheshire club who defeated them 35-18 in London having also beaten them in the 2010 Challenge Cup final.

But when it comes to the Super League equivalent, the Rhinos have their own authority – they are aiming for a fifth title in just six years while this is Warrington’s maiden appearance in Manchester.

“When it comes to the final it’s whoever plays well on the night,” added ever-present Hardaker.

“I believe it’s going to be really tight and whoever wins will really deserve it. It’ll be difficult but we know we can do it.

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“The Grand Final is totally different, though, to Wembley. At Old Trafford the atmosphere is electric and something the lads have done a number of years now even though it’s only my second time.

“It’s great running out there and it feels totally different to the Challenge Cup.

“It’s the last game of the season and we’ll try and cap it off in style.”

As for the apparent ease with which he has made the transition to full-back, it should come as no shock given it was his favoured position as a youngster with Wigan legend Kris Radlinski a hero.

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“I really enjoyed him; he had electric pace,” added Hardaker, who could have signed scholarship forms as a footballer with Barnsley and Bradford City before concentrating on rugby league.

“I was quite fast as a young lad growing up and he was particular fascinating for me. Nobody could touch him.

“I didn’t really know what position I’d be but I loved catching those high balls and it was rare that I dropped one as a kid so that was another hint that I was quite good at the back.”

It seems certain McDermott will retain him there in 2013 but he knows he will come up against one of the best in the game on Saturday night. Warrington’s Brett Hodgson is nearing his 35th birthday but the Australian, who captained the Exiles to success over England this summer, has proved an outstanding performer in Super League.

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Hardaker said: “He’s brilliant especially the age he’s at now and the way he’s still going.

“Looking at what he’s achieved, they’re the guys you look up to. He’s just a remarkable full-back.”

It was Hodgson who claimed the Lance Todd Trophy as man-of-the-match in victory at Wembley.

However, given the success-laden career of his young rival so far, it would be little surprise if Hardaker was in the running for the prestigious Harry Sunderland Trophy come Saturday evening.