Zak Hardaker: Leeds return like going back to your old school

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Zak Hardaker says it will be like going back to his old school after Leeds confirmed his return to Headingley.

The 30-year-old England international, who was a free agent after being sensationally released by Wigan last Friday, has signed a short-term contract with the club he made his Super League debut for 11 years ago.

Hardaker, who won three Grand Finals with the Rhinos and was named Man of Steel in their treble-winning season in 2015, will spend the rest of the season with the club and is likely to go straight into the team to play Hull KR at Headingley on Friday.

Rugby League – International Test Series – First Test – England v New Zealand – KC Stadium
Zak Hardaker, seen wearing the England kit, is in Shaun Wane’s World Cup squad (PA Images/Richard Sellers)

The move was sparked by a glut of injuries, particularly to Leeds’ outside backs, and sanctioned by new head coach Rohan Smith, who is due to arrive from Australia in time for Friday’s game.

“It is a strange feeling at the moment,” Hardaker said. “I suppose a bit like going back to your old school.

“I have fond memories of my time at Leeds and the opportunity to come back this year is really special.

“I have spoken to Rohan Smith so we can get a feel for each other. He is arriving on the same week and it was good to understand what he is looking for.”

Rohan Smith
Rohan Smith

Hardaker scored 67 tries in 155 appearances for Leeds, mostly from full-back, after joining them from Featherstone in 2010 and went on to win two Challenge Cups and a League Leaders Shield in addition to his three triumphs at Old Trafford.

He left the club after a run of poor form in 2016 to join NRL side Penrith Panthers but made just 11 appearances for the Australian club and resurrected his Super League career with Castleford in 2016.

Hardaker helped the Tigers reach a maiden Grand Final the following year but was stood down on the eve of the match and subsequently sacked after testing positive for cocaine.

Wigan threw him a lifeline after he completed his drugs ban and he went on to play in the 2020 Grand Final but at the end of the 2021 season he asked to be released from the final year of his contract to enable him to return to his Yorkshire roots.

Wigan refused his request but dropped him earlier this month for “failing to reach off-field standards” and last week agreed to cut their losses.

Hardaker added: “The way I left Wigan wasn’t the way I wanted to leave the club but I would like to thank everyone there for the opportunity to play for Wigan.

“This started last year when I wanted to get a chance to come home back to Yorkshire with my family.

“I have got that opportunity thankfully with Leeds and I can’t wait to play in those Friday night games in front of a packed South Stand again.

Rugby League – First Utility Super League – Super 8s – Leeds Rhinos v Warrington Wolves – Headingley Carnegie
Zak Hardaker is expected to be back in the blue and amber when Leeds host Hull KR on Friday (PA Images/Tim Goode)

“It is definitely a case of ‘you don’t realise what you’ve got until it’s gone’ and I think I let my time at the Rhinos the first time pass me by.

“When I left Wigan, I wasn’t thinking of any specific club to go to but just wanted to get back to Yorkshire and see what happened from there.

“After our history together, I was surprised and overwhelmed when Leeds came calling and I want to make the most of this opportunity, I think it is a deal that works well for everyone concerned.”

Leeds chief executive Gary Hetherington said: “We have had to move quickly to secure the services of Zak for the remainder of the season.

“The short-term contract works for all parties in this unique situation and I am sure Zak will be aiming to show his best form on the field now he is back in blue and amber.”

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