Rookie Hardaker backing Rhinos to upset Wolves in play-offs
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.