Zak Hardaker is a player who divides opinion, but he looks to have settled down in Wigan.
Into his third season now as a Warrior, the former Leeds Rhinos and Castleford Tigers star has become an integral cog in the Wigan wheel since making the move and he feels that the move to centre and promotion to the leadership group has helped him massively.
“I’ve played a few different roles with Wigan; I was a fullback when I first got here, but then I was moved to the centres with the inclusion of Bevan French, which I wasn’t too sure about.
“It’s certainly a position that I’ve played before, but towards the back end of last year I started to really enjoy it.
“My overall game is getting back to where it used to be. I’m feeling more confident with every year that I play. In every training session I’m trying to get the best out of myself to improve every day.
“I’ve been included in the leadership group too, which is a massive step for me.
“I’ve been stepping in to help players in how they train off the pitch. So being at Wigan has improved me as a leader and I’m now someone that young kids are actually looking up to.
“I’m trying to lead from the front and speak up as much as I can and be the best version of myself – I’ve grown as a player and as an individual.”
For Hardaker, 2020 threw up another twist with the birth of his and his partner’s first child, Abel, in December, which the 29-year-old says has helped him through the pandemic.
“Our first child was born on the 9th of December during the pandemic; it has helped because we had something to look forward to at the end of the year.
“It has been tough; I’m a people person and I love training and seeing my friends, but my partner being pregnant and the resumption of the season really helped with a difficult 2020.
“He could have actually been born around the Grand Final and, knowing my luck, he would have been born on the same day, but fortunately he held out a bit.
“He’s been a godsend ever since and I’ve loved every minute I’ve had with him.”
For Hardaker and the rest of the Wigan group, the loss in last year’s Grand Final against rivals St Helens was hard to take. For the centre, in particular, it was a missed opportunity, but he believes it will spur the side on in 2021.
“We’d won the League Leaders’ Shield and, with the effort we’d put in, it felt weird that we had lost.
“We scored a try and I hit the crossbar with my attempt as well as a penalty near the end. But I thought we were the better team and it didn’t feel like they would break us down at any point.
“They were camped on our line for half an hour and defensively we were really confident, but then right at the end they go for the drop-goal and something happened that you’ll never see again.
“Everyone left everything out there on the field – one had a broken cheekbone and one had a broken thumb.
“We sat down as a playing group straight after and talked about how proud we were of each other and what we’d achieved that year.
“After about 10-15 minutes of positive talk, we all started grabbing a beer and just sat down with a big sigh of relief.
“It had been a mad year and the incident right at the end probably summed up Rugby League.
“The group came together and that memory in the changing rooms after the game will live a long time with me.”
Hardaker is eager to take that experience into the new season and is determined to become one of the best players at Wigan and in Super League.
“I’ll be playing centre again, so my goal is to be the number one centre in Super League,” he says.
“I don’t want any question marks about anyone else, I want to be the best outright.
“I’ve spoken to the strength and conditioning coaches at the club and I’m going to be doing the one-percenters that I perhaps haven’t done my whole career – I’m not sure if that’s to do with having a baby or not!”
With pre-season just around the corner, the 29-year-old is focused firmly on winning trophies at a club that is used to success.
“I start training next week and whilst we haven’t had a big team meeting yet, being at Wigan comes with the Wigan way.
“You’re here to win trophies, whether it’s the League Leaders’ Shield, the Challenge Cup or the Grand Final.
“The Challenge Cup was a big aim for us last year, but Leeds did a job on us. It’s been a long time waiting for the Cup for Wigan.”
2021 is the year of the World Cup, so for Hardaker it’s a case of third time lucky.
“I’ve been involved in two before, but for whatever reason I’ve not participated.
“For my first World Cup, Sam Tomkins was at fullback and I was a bit of a spectator and got asked to leave early.
“The second time, it was a non-drinking camp so I wasn’t supposed to be drinking and I went out and had one and that resulted in me getting sent home.”
Those two experiences were a tough learning curve, but the fullback-turned-centre is determined to be in England coach Shaun Wane’s thoughts at the end of the year.
“I’ve learnt a lot over the years and the World Cup is massive to me.
“Shaun Wane spoke to a lot of us last year; he’s been focused on the World Cup since he took over.
“He’s obsessed about winning it and I’m obsessed about winning every game I play, so if I can be the best centre in the league then hopefully it will put me in the England squad.
“Then obviously I need to get picked and play; I’ve never played against Australia and that’s what I’d really like to achieve.
“I’m looking for a big 2021 and I can’t wait.”
The above content is also available in the regular weekly edition of League Express, on newsstands every Monday in the UK and as a digital download. Click here for more details.