Written by Callum Walker
Zak Hardaker has seemingly transformed his off-field behaviour since joining Wigan in November 2018. A career of misdemeanours culminated in a drugs ban that kept the star fullback out of Castleford Tigers’ maiden Grand Final appearance in 2017 – something which Castleford fans have not forgiven him for.
With his Rugby League career in tatters, Wigan offered him a lifeline. Signing a deal in May 2018, it was a deal that would save his sporting profession. That didn’t remove him from controversy, however, as barely months into his new contract, the fullback was found guilty of drink-driving offences.
Rehab followed and he enjoyed an event-free 2019 with the Warriors. The signing of Bevan French in July last year, however, ensured he would not have it all his own way in the fight for the number one jersey. In fact, French’s hegemony in that position in 2020 suggests that head coach Adrian Lam has found his fullback – and, it’s not Hardaker.
Instead, the former Man of Steel has been ousted to the right centre position; in an attempt to find the right shape, Hardaker appears to be much heavier than his lightweight fullback days. Naturally, that has made him slower and less agile, though a lot stronger, moulding him to the centre role perfectly. But, the ex-Leeds man does not flourish there as he did at fullback.
Defensively, Hardaker is an incredible athlete, but his time at Castleford led to him developing an attacking edge that had previously been lying dormant. The success in building structures and linking movements at the Tigers was a huge factor in the 965 points the West Yorkshire side managed to accrue in 2017. And, Hardaker was pivotal to that.
Whilst Lam has shaped him into the way he wants him to play, it has led to the Pontefract-born back losing an edge which separated him from the rest of his opponents. The flyer, the spontaneous runner, the acrobatic superstar that was once head-and-shoulders above rivals is sadly no longer with us.
Instead, a competent, solid centre has emerged that does the little things well. The flashy and elusive running that Hardaker employed at the back has been substituted for energy-sapping hard yards out of defence.
He is a good centre – there’s no doubt about it – but he was an outstandingly good fullback. And, whilst ever French continues to impress at number one, the harder it will be for him to ever restake his claim.
At the age of 28, Hardaker still has many years left in the game, but French is five years junior. The once loose cannon appears to have matured and finally settled down off the field and that’s great news for all concerned.
But, one can’t help thinking that the icon that was once on everyone’s lips for the way he played the game at the back is sadly wasted in a position that just doesn’t come naturally.