England coach Steve McNamara believes Leeds Rhinos’ Zak Hardaker has enough natural talent even to challenge Man of Steel Sam Tomkins as his country’s full-back.
Hardaker, recently crowned Super League’s Young Player of the Year, will cap a memorable season when he makes his full international debut against Wales on Saturday.
Wigan superstar Tomkins has failed to overcome a knee injury and so the Grand Final winner gets his chance in the opening autumn international.
Hardaker, who celebrated his 21st birthday last week while on England’s high-altitude training camp in South Africa, initially came to prominence as a prolific winger with Featherstone Rovers.
He completed a dream move to the Headingley club at the end of 2010 but was loaned back to the Championship outfit at the start of last year.
However, an injury-crisis at Leeds saw him given his chance and he has not looked back since making a try-scoring debut in March 2011.
Hardaker showed his versatility by impressing at centre, scoring as Leeds won that year’s Grand Final.
He featured in that position, too, at the start of this season and lifted the World Club Challenge after successfully negating the might of Australian premiers Manly Sea Eagles.
But he has truly come to the fore of late, when his mid-season switch to full-back has accentuated his attacking flair.
Now, after cementing another league title with the Rhinos, he will be offered the chance to replicate that for England.
McNamara told the Yorkshire Post: “He’s a kid who just goes out there and plays.
“Zak’s been able to adapt to a number of positions.
“Some players are mechanical and have to play left- or right-wing for example but this kid isn’t like that.
“He can turn his hand to anything and is simply one of those lovely rugby league players.”
It has been a rapid rise but McNamara sees no reason why the gifted player’s ascent cannot continue.
He feels Hardaker has the ability to put genuine pressure on the brilliant Tomkins, who has long been rated England’s finest talent.
McNamara added: “The kid’s form has been really good all year and particularly at the back end of the year.
“When he moved to full-back, he took over a pretty big pair of shoes in those of Brent Webb and his game went to a different level.
“It’s great for Zak and it’s great for us that we’ve got another player capable of playing very strong in that position.
“It puts some pressure back on Sam Tomkins, which is what we need across the park for all our players.
“Sam is an exceptional talent but he needs that pressure of competition as much as anybody.”
McNamara, who hopes to have Tomkins fit for the following week’s game against France at Hull’s KC Stadium, is also set to hand Leeds centre Kallum Watkins his England bow.
Another debutant will be Leeds-born Wigan Warriors hooker Michael McIlorum after the RFL confirmed that England Knights’ Alitalia European Cup game against Ireland enabled him to complete a three-match ban.
He missed the Warriors’ last two matches of the season following his dismissal against St Helens and it was thought he would have to complete the ban during the international campaign.
“The disciplinary people have said he’s available to play,” said McNamara, who insists they are not taking advantage of any loopholes.
“We were going to play him against Ireland last week for the England Knights because it’s been a long time since he played and we were really keen to get him some game time.
“He’s served his ban. We don’t make the decisions. The rules are set by the disciplinary committee. It’s nothing to do with England.
“The Knights are part of the England programme and we were going to play him in that game.”
Meanwhile, the Yorkshire Post understands Rangi Chase’s groin problem may not be as bad as first feared and the Castleford Tigers half-back could yet feature.
He was initially ruled out for the three-week tournament after picking up the injury but he may now have a chance of playing.