Daryl Powell admits he hasn’t spoken much to Zak Hardaker since Castleford’s 2017 implosion – but fully respects the threat he presents to his Tigers team tonight.
Powell and Hardaker helped spearhead Cas’ dominant League Leaders’ Shield campaign four years ago, when they finished 10 points ahead of the rest of the competition. But the full-back was then stood down in Grand Final week and later suspended after testing positive for cocaine, and Powell’s side crashed 24-6 against Leeds at Old Trafford.
Hardaker has rebuilt his career and reputation at Wigan and is one of Super League’s form players so far this year. And having coached him since his formative days with Featherstone Rovers, Powell knows all about his capabilities.
“I haven’t spoken to Zak too much since that time,” Powell said of 2017. “He’s over in Wigan at the moment so I haven’t seen him too much. Obviously I’ll say hello to him on Thursday night but I won’t wish him well too much for the game.
“He’s always been a really good natural rugby league player. He’s always been the same although he’s grown a little bit physically since those days, when he played on the wing initially at Featherstone.
“He’s playing outstandingly well at full-back for Wigan at the moment and will take a little bit of dealing with.”
Powell expects Hardaker to remain at the back despite the return of Australian star Bevan French, who the Tigers boss believes will start on the wing. And he hopes that Hardaker’s presence inspires his current no.1 Niall Evalds to hit even greater heights when the two unbeaten teams clash.
Powell said: “Everyone’s speaking a lot about the England full-back position at the moment and Zak’s being mentioned heavily in those discussions.
“But then you look at people like Sam Tomkins, Jake Connor and Niall Evalds – the challenge for Niall is to be right on the top of his game and show what he’s about. I just want to see him go out there and express himself.”
And while Powell concedes it is early days yet, he has seen glimpses in this year’s team that remind him of those heady 2017 days. He added: “We had to play exceptionally well to get out of the situation at Hull KR because they had us on toast there.
“Some of the things we did there were special and I thought we played great against Leigh with the ball. There are bigger challenges ahead – Wigan defend exceptionally well and they come at you with a fair bit of vigour. But I do see some confidence there that I haven’t seen for a while.”