RL Weekly: Converting Union Players To League & Rhinos’ Hardaker Short-Termism

Rugby league’s brand new expansion project Cornwall RL slipped to a fourth straight defeat in Betfred League One
10:35, 27 Apr 2022

Zak Hardaker will undoubtedly strengthen Leeds Rhinos’ stretched and under-performing squad but his return to Headingley underlines their desperation and lack of direction.

The 30-year-old’s sensational return to the club with whom he won Man Of Steel in their 2015 Treble season but who would then discard him for non-rugby reasons, seems to be very much a short-term measure designed to drag Leeds away from relegation ahead of a full rebuild under incoming head coach Rohan Smith. 

It also seems inconceivable that Hardaker will play a long-term role in that rebuild, with Betfred Championship leaders Featherstone still hopeful of landing his signature for next season. 

Yet given the speed at which Wigan dumped the player for his latest off-field indiscretion, and the crisis currently engulfing Headingley, it does make perfect sense. Not least because the sudden timing of it means many potential suitors have no room on their salary cap right now.

Hardaker can basically pick his own starting position at Leeds, such has been their wretched form and injury list. Full-back, wing, centre, even in the halves, take your pick, he would start and enhance the side. The bigger picture though when talking about the fall and potential rebuild of the Rhinos, always focuses on one word: Culture. The very reason Wigan got rid of the player. In bringing back a player who has repeatedly fallen short of those basic professional standards, before a new head coach - for whom professionalism is the number one watchword - has even arrived in the country, is a little mystifying.

As for the player himself, I understand Hardaker has been in positive spirits throughout this latest personal setback, and has been in regular dialogue with RL Cares who provide welfare support to players across all levels of the sport.

I have no doubt he will be well backed, warmly welcomed and produce the goods on the pitch when he pulls on that blue and amber again. 

Zak Hardaker makes his Leeds Rhinos return
Zak Hardaker makes his Leeds Rhinos return

Elsewhere, last weekend rugby league’s brand new expansion project Cornwall RL slipped to a fourth straight defeat in Betfred League One, although their 48-22 reverse at Oldham was actually their lightest setback so far. 

“Even in the games so far we have seen a progression in our performances, if not our results,” head coach Neil Kelly told The Sportsman.

“Can we win yet? I don’t know, that’s up to the players to prove me wrong. In the middle we have been acquitting ourselves really well.

I’ve seen each of these historic fixtures first hand and in truth it has been a tough watch but are there small signs of improvement? Absolutely. 

What I’ve loved about Cornwall so far is the team spirit and togetherness right until the final hooter which can be very difficult when you are getting battered every week. 

At Oldham on Sunday they high-fived and celebrated tries when already losing heavily and congratulated each other on forcing opposition errors long after the contest had been decided. In Kelly they have an experienced coach overseeing a task the likes of which he will have never been part of before. 

He has some exciting young talent there on dual-registration from both Wigan and Bradford, with 2017 Grand Final winner Anthony Mullally leading by example on the pitch. But a big chunk of the squad at the moment are young rugby union players learning league on the job, in a competitive and unforgiving environment. 

As such, basic set plays are an obvious and glaring issue - if the opposition have a scrum in front of Cornwall posts for example, then they are generally scoring right from it off the first play. 

“We are just paying a heavy price for people’s individual naivety and lack of skill,” Kelly adds.

“It’s a frustration but it is expected as we are trying to change some rugby union players in a short space of time to play league at a good level. So we have to be realistic about their progression.”

Kelly is digging in and believes it is a project that will work long-term so long as he is backed and the improvements, however small, are seen each week.

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