Three is a magic number for Wigan Warriors’ Zak Hardaker as he looks to cement a place in the England squad for the Rugby League World Cup later this year.
Three years on from failing a drugs test and receiving a drink-driving charge in 2018, the 29-year-old is on his third attempt at playing on the grandest international stage of them all within the sport.
Having been selected in the squad for the World Cup in 2013, Hardaker withdrew from the squad because of an off-field incident and went on to miss out on the 2017 squad as a result of the drugs ban. Now, he’s gunning for selection once again.
He said: “It’s always been my fault as to why I’ve missed out on playing in a World Cup, and I want to put that right. You want to play for your country as many times as possible and you can’t get much bigger than that so it’s definitely a massive aim for me.
“If my performances for Wigan are good then it will propel me into being picked on an international level. Shaun Wane (current England manager and former Wigan Warriors manager) has said in the press himself that whoever is playing the best at that time will get chosen regardless of how many caps they’ve earned previously.
“All the onus and pressure is on the players, so we can only focus on ourselves and our performances.”
Three tries in three games so far this season, Hardaker has been one of the top performers in Super League despite being asked by manager Adrian Lam to swap his playing position over the last year.
A full-back by trade, the defender has also shifted across the back line into centre and back again, something which he admits might have been more of a challenge earlier in his career.
He said: “First and foremost I am a full-back and if this was a few years ago, I’d have stuck my heels in and said ‘no I’m not moving’ but I had those conversations with Lammy (Adrian Lam) post-lockdown.
“I played centre last season and at the start, I wasn’t happy with It because I wasn’t involved in games as much as I’d have liked to have been but then towards the end of the year, I liked the physicality of it.
“Wherever the team needs me, I’m willing to do it now and playing full-back at international level is definitely something which I’d be interested in. Whatever position I play, we’ll see how Shaun Wane picks his squad throughout the year.
“I’ll just do my best for Wigan and see where it takes me from there.”
The Warriors – with a 100% win record – are joint top of the Super League table with three other sides as it stands and progressed through into the Challenge Cup Quarter-final with a demolition of Championship outfit York City Knights as Hardaker got himself on the scoresheet again
Off the field, things are going well too now and his move over the Pennines looks to have helped him fulfil his promise of having changed for the better upon signing for the Warriors in 2019 when many thought his career may be done and dusted.
Recently engaged to partner Elisha, Hardaker became a Father for the first time in December as he welcomed son Abel. A settled family life has self-admittedly changed the player’s life for the better.
He said: “Everyone says that having a child changes you and I didn’t really believe it before, but it does and it has changed me. The way I think now has changed completely, I’m forward thinking as to what I’m going to do after the game and after my career with my family.
“That’s a day to day thought process now and I’ve got to look after my family. It’s helped me because I now have something more to play for and having a family gives me that little bit of extra motivation to do the best that I can do.
“I honestly love being a dad, and I even miss both Abel and Elisha every day when I’m at training. The only downside is that I’ve lost a bit of hair and I’ve had to pay for some more to be put back in!”
While Hardaker may not have lost his comedic value, the last few years have certainly shown that a leopard can change its spots and the defender’s performances both on and off the pitch have proven many doubters wrong.
Next up for Hardaker is a trip to former team Castleford Tigers on Thursday – 22nd April – when he and his Warriors team-mates will look to carry on their winning run.