Watkins featured there during the 26-24 defeat at Wigan Warriors on Thursday night when his colleague served a one-game ban.
With his silky running style, he had impressed when Hardaker was sin-binned during the previous week’s win over St Helens leaving some observers feeling it could be the 24-year-old’s best position in the long-term.
But Hardaker will return when the leaders host Salford Red Devils on Friday and Watkins insisted: “We missed Zak, in terms of his play and his attitude at Wigan.
“What he brings to the team is phenomenal for us and he was certainly a big loss.
“In terms of full-back, getting the ball in my hands – and pretty early – is good for me.
“I managed to make some carries and some decisions that were pretty good, so I was quite pleased with how I went.
“More importantly, in terms of the result it was disappointing, but I thought I played all right.”
Watkins concedes Leeds were “heartbroken” after the agonising defeat at DW Stadium.
They looked on course for at least a point when Kevin Sinfield converted Rob Burrow’s 78th minute try to level at 24-24. However, Rhinos were then carelessly penalised when in possession to gift Matty Smith the winning kick with just 45 seconds remaining.
“It was disappointing,” said Watkins, who marked his 150th appearance for the West Yorkshire club since debuting in 2008. “It was a decision the ref made and we have to move on pretty quickly from it.
“But it is heartbreaking, because in the second half I thought we pulled it back in terms of our attitude and determination and we were unlucky not to get the right result.”
Leeds were aggrieved that Danny McGuire’s first-half try was ruled out when Watkins was deemed to have obstructed Joel Tomkins despite many feeling it was a harsh call.
“I was trying to hang around there, trying to get involved in the ball,” he explained.
“It is something a little bit different for me (full-back) – I am probably more used to being on the edges – but it is pretty important to try and get involved and support. I was trying to get a try as well or help us get a try but it’s the way it is.”
He faces his hometown club next with Leeds desperate for an immediate return to winning form to maintain their hold on top spot.
“Salford are the team I followed when I was a kid and I was a ball boy there,” revealed Watkins, who cites Malcolm Alker, Stuart Littler and Gary Broadbent as his boyhood heroes.
“I grew up watching them and that made me want to become a rugby player, so I always look forward to playing against them.
“It is going to be a tough game for us, but we need to turn things around in terms of putting in an 80-minute performance, because in the first half we weren’t good enough at times against Wigan.
“In the second half we showed the right attitude and determination and on other day it might have gone our way.”