So yesterday I read an article where Zak Hardaker, Castleford Tigers’ exceptional full back, said that he would be happy to play at centre for England at the upcoming World Cup in Australia – as he did in the mid-season friendly. While this is possibly an admirable attitude from the man, showing he is willing to play anywhere to represent England, if coach Wayne Bennett doesn’t start him at full back it is an absolute travesty.
The Featherstone born back was, yesterday, up for Super League’s Steve Prescott MBE Man of Steel award which, ultimately, he lost to his mercurial teammate Luke Gale. But to have even been nominated indicates that not only is he the best full back in the league but one of the best players in the league – so why is he not a shoe in to start at full back in the World Cup? He earned a place in the 2017 Super League dream team at full back as well as the aforementioned Man of Steel nomination – what more must he do?
Also, who else is going to start there? To me, there are three other options – all of whom who are currently inferior to Hardaker, two of whom would simply be there on reputation and not this season. One of those is, of course, Wigan’s Sam Tomkins. Yes, in the past he has been a sensational player but that couldn’t be said of his 2017 performances. Perhaps it has taken him a while to get back to tom form after around a year out of the game with injury – it doesn’t necessarily make him a bad person but, this winter, you couldn’t say he is the best man for the job.
Stefan Ratchford is the second player who isn’t up to scratch and is there on past ‘achievements’ and not his performances this season. I use the inverted commas around achievements there as he hasn’t really achieved an awful lot in terms of honours but, yes, he is a capable player. But, looking at the past season, Hardaker has been a huge part of Castleford’s success and has done more than his fair share of work in making sure they finished top of the pile. Ratchford, however, played as a number 1 in a team which has massively underachieved this year with Warrington failing to even make the top 8, ending 2017 fighting for survival in Super League. He hasn’t performed to the level one has come to expect and shouldn’t be picked ahead of Hardaker this winter.
One player I really do hope is on the plane and is back up to Hardaker for the full back position is Hull FC’s Jamie Shaul. The 25 year old has really come of age over the last couple of years and his elusive running and electric pace has seen him score some superb tries as well as gaining vital ground for his team – not dissimilar from his Castleford counterpart. He is, in my opinion, a rather similar player to Hardaker and would definitely be in the squad on merit which is, of course, how international selection should work. He would bring a vibrancy and dynamism to the team if he were to play along with a rawness due to the fact he would, indeed, be a novice to international rugby and would play without fear.
All being said, however, Zak Hardaker should be a dead-cert to start at number 1 for England this winter as he is simply the best full back this country has at the moment and it would be a travesty if Bennett selects anybody else.
Image from https://twitter.com/zakhardaker1