1. Handy Hardaker
Zak Hardaker excelled in Leeds’ awesome 39-point thrashing of Warrington on Friday. The young fullback has had a great season and he crossed for two tries, one a really eye-catching effort, in the one-sided win over the Wolves. Hardaker has had his well-publicised problems off the field, and occasionally on the field, in recent years. But the Rhinos have stuck by him and the prodigious talent seems to be thriving at the business end of this season. Tall, strong, quick, elusive, with the ability to put teammates through holes and a great step, Hardaker has just about got it all. He and centre Kallum Watkins are vying to be Leeds’ most dangerous attacking weapon and both are decent Man of Steel candidates this year.
The 23-year old’s electric form has led questions about his inclusion in the upcoming international series against New Zealand. Sam Tomkins is the established England no 1, but Hardaker is putting real pressure on him. Tomkins has hardly played this season in the NRL due to injury, and has been solid, not spectacular, in his near two years with the New Zealand Warriors. Steve McNamara has a real dilemma on his hands, does he stick with Tomkins or give Hardaker a chance? I think with the kind of run Hardaker is on you just can’t leave him out. England need to find space to include both the potential match-winners. Queensland have had great success in the past five, six years including three natural fullbacks in the starting 13. With Billy Slater at the back, Darius Boyd on the wing and Greg Inglis in the centres, the Maroons have been near unstoppable. Australia did it in the 2013 World Cup with those three, plus NSW custodian Jarryd Hayne in the centres alongside GI. Hardaker and Tomkins are both versatile players, natural footballers who could adapt to a wing or centre position. England needs both on the field to defeat the Kiwis.
2. Sticky Sandow
While Hardaker shone it was tough going for new Warrington recruit Chris Sandow. The Wolves were on the back foot for most of the game and the chunky half-back found it hard to get going. There were touches of class and his great vision, including putting Stefan Ratchford through a gap to set up Kevin Penny’s try. This is the kind of playmaking that Sandow is best known for. But the scrum-half looked short of a gallop and at times overplayed his hand. A kick out on the full and a forward pass summed up his first-half effort.
Sandow will be marked man in Super League and has already come in for a battering from some sections on social media. But he’s only been in the country for a week and will get better with time, as he gets to know his new team-mates more. He is no Andrew Johns or Allan Langer, two of Warrington’s more famous past Aussie half-back imports, but he does have the talent to lead a team and win matches almost single-handedly. Before the Leeds game Sandow mentioned how good it felt to be out of the Sydney goldfishbowl, the bright spotlight of the NRL, but the Queenslander will soon realise that Super League has its own pressures and the expectation on him is high. Wolves fans are demanding and as a big-money, overseas signing he has to deliver. Sandow fell out of favour at South Sydney and has had issues with gambling in the past. At Parramatta he failed to fire consistently and butted heads with coach Brad Arthur, which led to his exit. He’ll learn quickly that Super League is no walk in the park and he will have to be at this best to succeed.
3. Leigh lamped
Happy days again for Hull KR fans who are celebrating two key victories in the space of a week. After upsetting Warrington in the Cup the Robins had a difficult start to the Super 8s away at Leigh. The Centurions have an outstanding home record and came into the competition high on confidence. And things looked good for the Lancashire side at half-time, when they were cruising with a 24-6 lead. Hull KR looked shell-shocked and below par after a physical semi-final against the Wolves. But a rocket at the break from Chris Chester did the trick and the Robins turned it on in the second 40. Five tries in the second half, to five different scorers, turned the game on its head and handed a rare loss to Leigh.
For Hull KR, without Albert Kelly as well who could be out for some time, it was a fantastic second-half performance. For the Centurions it leaves them with lots to ponder after failing to see out what would have been a crucial victory. They now have six games left to see if they can achieve their dream, which is Super League promotion. Leigh have hardly been beaten in the past two years so it will be interesting to see how they handle this defeat. The Centurions know they can mix it up with Super League teams, they have already beaten Salford and Wakefield in the Cup this season. But can they improve their discipline to survive for the full 80? Do they have the depth to compete and the mental toughness? There’s no doubt they have the attack to trouble anyone but it is defence that wins matches. It’s imperative they bounce back against Salford, who will be rejuvenated after overpowering Wakefield, this weekend. Paul Rowley may disagree, but they have a lot of pressure on them to get promoted this year. Back-to-back defeats in the Super 8s would be a terrible start to this new competition and would give them a mountain to climb.
4. Downward Devils
Another week, another series of damaging headlines for Salford. Half-back Theo Fages has handed in his resignation from the club and appears unlikely to take part in any of the Super 8s matches for the Red Devils. The move will be contested by Salford in a tribunal, as they are not happy with Fages’ decision. It’s another blow for the club that seems to reel from crisis to crisis. I’m surely not the only one who is tired of the Salford soap opera. Marwan Koukash can blame money-hungry agents all he likes, but when several players want out or have left unexpectedly – Fages, Locke, Puletua, Hock, etc – the problem lies a bit deeper.
It’s a crucial time for the Red Devils and to be missing the livewire Frenchman for the next six weeks is a disastrous situation. But some good news came on Sunday as Salford edged past Wakefield in a thriller at the AJ Bell Stadium. The home team was outstanding for the first 35 minutes or so, asleep for the next 25, but then rallied hard in the final stages to grab the win. It will come as a huge relief to Koukash and Tim Sheens’ charges, who have had a difficult 2015. Rangi Chase and Cory Patterson were pivotal in the late fightback over Wakey and, as two of Salford’s most experienced campaigners, they will need to lead from the front in the next two months to keep the Red Devils up.
5. Drug testing touch-up
Weirdest story of the week came from Leigh, who made a complaint against the UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) following an episode with their player Sam Barlow. The Centurions have claimed that a drug tester was “acting suspiciously” outside Barlow’s house one evening, which ended with the prop calling the police. The police took no action but Leigh has contacted the RFL over the matter and then complained to the UKAD. The UKAD has not commented about this, only to say there is an investigation on-going. Where to begin? You don’t hear of this sort of thing every day. It certainly seems to be a strange incident.
Doping in rugby league is a tricky issue. Positive tests of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) are very rare in our code, but that doesn’t mean that some players aren’t using. Eorl Crabtree wrote in the June issue of Rugby World magazine that he had one blood test in his 15-year career of 400-plus games. That’s simply not enough testing. Crabtree believes some players are getting away with using PEDs, and with that sort of limited testing regime, it’s highly likely. With the return of promotion and relegation, and a growing amount of money involved, the pressure on players and clubs has gone up. The amount of testing needs to increase, in the Championship as well as in Super League, to ensure we have a clean sport. The NRL has recently had its own problems with illegal peptides at Cronulla and it be would be foolish and naïve to think something similar couldn’t happen in the UK.
Testing in the Championship is pretty infrequent. According to one club there has been only been two occasions this year where testers have visited their players. A level playing field is crucial in a physical, demanding, high-impact sport like rugby league. If it’s a case of finances, then the RFL needs to cough up more dough so we can have more testing, that is varied and unexpected, across the professional ranks. We’ve already seen what doping has done to cycling and most recently athletics has been under the microscope. Rugby league needs a drugs scandal like it needs a hole in the head.
Follow John Davidson on Twitter @johnnyddavidson