10 August 2023

Zak Hardaker admits repaying Leigh coach for his faith would be ‘pretty special’

10 August 2023

Zak Hardaker will strain every sinew to win the Betfred Challenge Cup this weekend for Adrian Lam after thriving under the care and attention of the Leigh head coach.

The Leopards defied pre-season predictions that they would struggle on their Super League comeback and, with just half a dozen matches of the regular campaign left, Lam’s side are currently joint second.

Leigh could cap a remarkable return to the big time by beating Hull KR at Wembley on Saturday and Hardaker has attributed the club being the breakout story of the year to former Wigan boss Lam.

Hardaker, who worked under the Papua New Guinean at the Warriors, has had a string of disciplinary issues throughout his career but believes he has matured under Lam at Leigh.

“I’ve just settled,” he told the PA news agency. “When I signed at Leigh, the big factor was Lammy wanting me, wanting to settle me down and get the old head switched on.

“I think he knows me better than me, to be fair. He just makes sure that I’m happy, not that I want that much. He makes sure everyone’s home life is pretty good and wants that to be in order first.

“As a coach, if everyone’s happy outside of rugby then the on-the-field stuff takes care of itself. He makes sure I’m alright and it’s lovely that he’s so caring and looks out for me like that.

“I try to repay him by training hard and playing well for him on the pitch. If I can do that on Saturday and get him a win, it would be pretty special.”

Winning the cup this weekend would mean everything

Leigh won 28 of their 29 fixtures in last year’s Championship, including brushing aside Batley in the Million Pound Game, but their three past promotions to the top table ended with immediate relegation.

They bolstered their ranks by bringing in players with proven Super League pedigree, with Hardaker joined by former Leeds team-mate Tom Briscoe and experienced forwards Oliver Holmes and Jack Hughes.

“We knew we had a chance to do something,” Hardaker said. “Bringing in many people from different clubs and trying to get them to gel so quickly might have been the biggest issue but everyone’s so close.

“It’s weird in a way because friendships and bonds sometimes take a couple of years and you get that bond over a long period of time, but we’ve got it in a short period of time.

“We enjoy coming to training, we all have a laugh and a joke but when it’s time to get serious, we train hard. Every game’s been great. Even when we’ve lost, we’ve had big learning curves.”

Hardaker bagged a try as Leigh toppled St Helens – the winners of the past four Grand Finals who triumphed in the World Club Challenge earlier this year – last month to reach the Wembley showpiece.

Leigh’s last visit to the famous stadium was 52 years ago while this latest trip will just be their second overall, so the magnitude of the occasion is not lost on Hardaker.

He said: “We’ve seen pictures from then – what they did and the parade they had and all the fans in the street. It gives you that buzz of what it means and we’re going to try our hardest to recreate that.”

Hardaker has only had to wait eight years for another crack at cup-final glory. Back then, his Leeds side demolished Hull KR 50-0 and he ended the season as the Super League’s Man of Steel.

But in that same year, he was arrested for assault while in 2018 he was sacked by Castleford for failing a drugs test for cocaine before serving a driving ban shortly after being signed by Wigan.

Last year, he was released by the Warriors just days after coach Matt Peet said Hardaker had “dipped below the standards” expected of a Wigan player, but the 31-year-old has redeemed himself at Leigh.

“Winning the cup this weekend would mean everything,” he added. “It would definitely be up there with one of the best achievements I’ve got so far.”

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