Zak Hardaker – a Man of Steel contender and likely key figure in England coach Wayne Bennett’s World Cup plans – has sensationally been dropped by Castleford Tigers for Saturday’s Super League Grand Final against his former club Leeds Rhinos.
Tigers say he has breached club rules. Just two days before an eagerly-anticipated final, which is set to sell-out Old Trafford, it is stunning news.
Hardaker has a previous history. In 2013 he was stood down from England’s World Cup squad and two years later Rhinos dropped him for a game following an incident on a night out in Leeds.
He bounced back to be named Man of Steel in 2015, when Leeds won the treble, but things soured last year and he spent time on loan at Penrith Panthers.
This year Hardaker moved to Castleford, initially on loan before signing a contract until the end of 2021 and has been playing the best rugby of his career.
He was runner-up to team-mate Luke Gale for Man of Steel and is a vital cog in Tigers’ machine.
The best defensive full-back in Super League, he has added a new dimension to his attacking game and would have been one of Cas’ main strike weapons on Saturday.
So, what are the implications for the Grand Final?
Hardaker’s loss is not a game-breaker. Tigers will be weaker without him, are far from a one-man outfit and incidents like this tend to galvanise teams.
Cas have handled the loss of key players particularly well this year. Joel Monaghan or Jy Hitchcox will step into the outside-backs and both have a habit of producing a big performance when called upon. Either could play on the wing, with leading try scorer Greg Eden moving to full-back. It’s not ideal, but far from a disaster.
In 2008 Rhinos lost full-back Brent Webb a few days before the Grand Final through injury. Lee Smith filled in and was named man of the match in a shock win.
Castleford remain favourites to win their first Championship, but Leeds’ players may have an extra spring in their step between now and kick-off time.