Wigan Warriors v Castleford Tigers - Battle of the England No 1s

THERE is talk aplenty about Wigan Warriors’ Zak Hardaker being England’s full-back at this year’s World Cup – but Castleford Tigers chief Daryl Powell has urged his No 1, Niall Evalds, to lay down his own marker tonight.

Something must give at DW Stadium given both Super League clubs have enjoyed 100 per cent winning starts to the season.

There will be fascinating battles across the park for onlooking England coach Shaun Wane to consider and it would be no surprise if the round-four contest delivers the best encounter yet.

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However, the two full-backs are clearly in supreme form.

Time to stake claim: Niall Evalds. Picture: SWPix

Hardaker, who helped Castleford to the 2017 League Leaders’ Shield and Grand Final before his infamous drugs ban, played centre for most of last season due to the class of Wigan’s dazzling Australian full-back Bevan French.

French is due to make his first appearance of the season tonight but Powell expects him to play on the wing such is the stellar form of former Leeds Rhinos star Hardaker, who is Super League’s leading metre-maker and also joint-top in terms of tackle busts.

Uncapped Evalds is in Wane’s squad and has quickly settled at Wheldon Road since his off-season move from Salford Red Devils, scoring three tries in as many games and also creating five more.

“Everyone is talking about the England full-back position at the moment and Zak is being spoken about pretty heavily in those discussions,” said Powell, who also coached the 29-year-old former Man of Steel at his first professional club, Featherstone Rovers.

“But then you look at people like Sam Tomkins and Jake Connor – and then Niall Evalds.

“So the challenge for Niall is to be right on top of his game and show what he’s about.

“We’re talking about people from the opposition but I think we’ve got a guy who’s going outstandingly well at the moment.

“I just want to see him go out there and express himself and do what he’s outstanding at.”

Wane has already said in-form Catalans Dragons star Tomkins – who has 25 caps – would be his England full-back if the tournament was starting tomorrow while Hardaker and Connor both have plenty of international experience, too.

But the national coach has always said he will pick on form. So, does Powell believe 27-year-old Halifax-born Evalds can truly force his way into that reckoning?

“He’s one of those players who can do it; he’s in the squad and he has the ability,” said the coach.

“I think it’s about putting himself out there and delivering in the big games. This is one of those games. He’s playing against one of those players who has been mentioned as an England full-back so now it’s down to Niall to show what he’s got.

“He has got the players in his team who can deliver him the ball in the areas where he needs to be able to show what he can do.

“He’s started great for us. He’s been exceptional.

“He’s a great kid, works hard, understands the game and has delivered some outstanding passes in great positions for us.

“He’s creating tries and scoring tries so I do think it will come down to these big games where it will show who’s got the ability to play for England.”

Four years ago, Hardaker missed Castleford’s Grand Final against Leeds – which they subsequently lost – after testing positive for cocaine, leading to a 14 months ban.

Asked what their relationship is like now, Powell said: “Obviously, he’s over in Wigan at the moment so I haven’t seen too much of him. I’ll say hello to him on Thursday night – but won’t wish him too well for the game.

“He’s always been a really good, natural rugby league player.

“He’s playing outstandingly well at full-back at the minute – I think it’d be pretty harsh if they moved him – and he’s going to take a little bit of dealing with.”

However, Castleford are looking good, producing some wonderful football in Friday’s 52-16 defeat of Leigh Centurions after a Golden Point win at Hull KR.

It has prompted memories of their brilliant year of 2017 when Castleford were widely praised for their style.

Powell said: “It’s early days.

“We have played some great stuff. We were great against Leigh with the ball but there’s bigger challenges ahead: Wigan defend exceptionally well and they come at you with a fair bit of vigour so this is a real step up for us.

“But I do see some confidence in us that I haven’t seen for a long while. Hopefully, that’s a really good positive sight for us.”