Joe Whitley (JW): Jamie Peacock said in an interview this week that he believes Zak Hardaker is a better full-back, defensively at least, than anyone on the planet. Castleford coach Daryl Powell was also full of praise for the Rhinos star and even said he is going to be pressuring Sam Tomkins for England’s number one shirt. If you ask me, he’s easily the best full-back we have on current form. Do you agree?
Aaron Bower (AB): Absolutely not. Although Hardaker is having an outstanding season for Leeds – that simply cannot be denied – he is still, for me, behind Sam Tomkins in the pecking order when it comes to first-choice full-back for England. It will take more than a good third of the season to wrestle the shirt away from Tomkins, as he is still the most creative pivot we have. That seems to have been forgotten since he departed for the NRL.
“One swallow doesn’t make a Summer, in all fairness. Tomkins is a proven international full-back; Zak Hardaker isn’t, unfortunately.”
JW: There’s no question Tomkins has proved his class over a longer period of time but I was making the point that on current form there’s no-one better than Hardaker. Granted, Tomkins would have to be your number one choice for the Four Nations later this year on previous accomplishments alone, but right now he’s far from firing on all cylinders. Indeed, there have been whispers of him not living up to his reputation Down Under. Hardaker, on the other hand, has been nothing short of sensational. He’s leading Super League in metres gained and tackles bust, has scored six tries, assisted seven others, and has been a big reason behind the fact Leeds haven’t conceded 100 points yet this year. It’s surely a case of when not if he takes over Tomkins. And if he carries on like this I’m certain it will be at the very next opportunity.
AB: One swallow doesn’t make a Summer, in all fairness. Tomkins is a proven international full-back; Zak Hardaker isn’t, unfortunately. If England are to compete at the Four Nations they need to be certain they are going into the tournament with their very best players available in their best positions. By the time the competition comes around then Tomkins will have had a full season in the NRL under his belt, which will be priceless for the development of England as a young national side. He needs to be given a period of time to bed in over in New Zealand; you can’t expect a seamless transition, the two competitions are very different.
There can be little doubt that – even given Hardaker’s unbelievable form – that Tomkins is the best full-back England have available. He makes international defences quiver with his natural ability and supreme talent.
JW: That’s a disrespectful phrase to use in this case. It’s not as though Hardaker has been terrible before this season, is it? He was picked as England’s back-up for the World Cup before his behavioural problems got in the way, and he’s matured since then and improved massively. I just can’t see how you could leave him out of the team. Equally, I wouldn’t want to see Tomkins on the bench. Therefore, why not play him at scrum-half? Do we have anyone categorically better than Tomkins in that position? I don’t think we do. If it was up to me, I’d start Hardaker at 1 and Tomkins at 7. That way you get the best of both worlds – the most in-form full-back we have playing at full-back, and someone with bags of evasiveness, skill and vision creating all our chances.
AB: If you’re talking about moving people around to fit them both in, then you should be playing Hardaker at centre, not Tomkins at scrum-half. You can’t displace the man who has become England’s most fundamental and vitally important player. Tomkins’ game is built around playing full-back; there aren’t many who can instinctively cut a line like him when attacking from deep. Hardaker hasn’t been terrible, as I’ve mentioned – he’s just in an unfortunate position where he’s stuck behind a modern day genius who is hogging his spot. Ask the numerous Australian superstars who can’t get in front of Billy Slater, like Greg Inglis.
“It’s surely a case of when not if he takes over Tomkins. And if he carries on like this I’m certain it will be at the very next opportunity.”
JW: I just think the team would be a lot stronger and well-balanced the way I’ve mentioned. If you played Hardaker at centre, one of Kallum Watkins, Jack Reed, Leroy Cudjoe or Michael Shenton would end up missing out, which is bad for the team as all four are world class players. However, I’m not sure England have a world class scrum half at their disposal right now, or at least no-one better than Tomkins. In a few years I think Marc Sneyd will have something to say about that but right now there isn’t anyone. I suppose you could argue that Hardaker, having played at scrum-half for Leeds on Boxing Day last year, could also swap in to the halves if needed, but you have to think Tomkins would be more useful given his experience playing there for Wigan in the early days of his career.
AB: The crux of my point is that Tomkins is the most talented full-back we have, simple as that. Therefore it seems absurd that we are talking about playing him in any position other than the one has cemented himself in over recent years. Heck, Tomkins has managed to squeeze Kevin Locke out of the role at the Warriors to such an extent that he’s going to the other side of the world to play his rugby! If that doesn’t tell you how good Tomkins is, I don’t know what does. I would very much like to see Hardaker as part of the England setup, but he is simply not on the level of Sam Tomkins.