Rookie Har­daker back­ing Rhi­nos to up­set Wolves in play-offs

Yorkshire Post - Sports Monday - - Front page - Dave Craven

FEAR­LESS Zak Har­daker be­lieves trans­formed Leeds Rhi­nos can main­tain their ma­jes­tic form to reach a sixth Su­per League Grand Fi­nal in eight years.

As ex­pected, War­ring­ton Wolves last night chose the West York­shire club rather than reign­ing cham­pi­ons Wi­gan War­riors as their semi-fi­nal op­po­nents in the con­tentious Club Call. Leeds will head to the mi­nor cham­pi­ons on Fri­day (8pm) while St He­lens host Wi­gan, who elim­i­nated Cata­lan Dragons 44-0 yes­ter­day, the fol­low­ing evening (6pm).

Rhi­nos have lost their pre­vi­ous three games against Tony Smith’s side, in­clud­ing last sea­son’s Chal­lenge Cup fi­nal, fall­ing 40-24 at Halliwell Jones Sta­dium in March be­fore suf­fer­ing an embarrassing 42-6 home de­feat two months later.

How­ever, Brian Mc­Der­mott’s re­formed team are now play­ing their finest foot­ball of the sea­son and, hav­ing fin­ished fifth, will look to be­come the first club to reach Old Traf­ford from out­side the top three.

Teenage cen­tre Har­daker epit­o­mises their cur­rent cre­dence, scor­ing a hat-trick in Fri­day’s 34-28 win at Hud­der­s­field, to se­cure their un­ex­pected place.

It was a fourth suc­ces­sive vic­tory since los­ing the Chal­lenge Cup fi­nal against Wi­gan and he told the

York­shire Post: “War­ring­ton have been the best side this sea­son as they fin­ished top but it can go any way now.

“A few teams have de­feated them across there and one did not make the play-offs (Sal­ford).

“Ev­ery team is beat­able on the day and we’ll be turn­ing up at train­ing on Mon­day ready to pre­pare for next week.

“We’re all buzzing. We’re en­joy­ing each other’s com­pany and back­ing each other while we’re all en­joy­ing our rugby league which is the main thing.”

None more so than the gifted rookie who only made his Su­per League de­but in March but has scored 11 tries in just 13 matches.

Pon­te­fract-born Har­daker ap­peared in a Cham­pi­onship Grand Fi­nal with Feather­stone Rovers barely 12 months ago and ad­mit­ted: “I didn’t ex­pect to play at all this sea­son but I’m re­ally en­joy­ing my­self.

“Fri­day was un­doubt­edly my best match. It’s al­ways good to get a hat-trick but in cir­cum­stances like that – a play-off game away at Hud­der­s­field – is also spe­cial so I’ll re­mem­ber that for a long time.”

First-choice cen­tres Kal­lum Watkins and Carl Ablett could both re­turn from in­jury on Fri­day although Mc­Der­mott has hinted pro­lific Har­daker has done enough to re­tain his place.

Although cur­rently in men­ac­ing form, il­lus­trated by their 47-0 qual­i­fy­ing semi-fi­nal win over Hud­der­s­field, War­ring­ton are not im­preg­nable and four of their five league losses were at home.

Given their own mo­men­tum and con­fi­dence, Leeds are right to be­lieve an up­set is plau­si­ble es­pe­cially given the pres­sure on the odds-on favourites to make their maiden Su­per League show­piece.

Mc­Der­mott added: “It wouldn’t have been an easy de­ci­sion for War­ring­ton. Maybe six or seven weeks ago it would but, now, this must have taken a fair amount of con­sid­er­a­tion.”

Mean­while, Har­daker’s former Feather­stone col­leagues re­turn, iron­i­cally, to War­ring­ton, on Sun­day to try and win their own Grand Fi­nal af­ter last year’s loss.

“I’ve wished them luck and hope­fully we can do the same by reach­ing Old Traf­ford – that would be sub­lime,” he ad­mit­ted.

ZAK HAR­DAKER: Hop­ing to re­tain his Leeds place against War­ring­ton on Fri­day night.

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