Last week, Castleford Tigers announced that they had signed Leeds Rhinos and England full-back Zak Hardaker on a permanent deal.
The 25-year-old had already been playing – and starring – for the league leaders on a loan basis, but how will the transfer affect the Tigers’ title bid?
The season so far
With 20 games played, the Tigers lead the Super League table by eight points, a situation that few would have predicted before the start of the season. The Yorkshire club have never previously won a league title, and they even spent time in the second tier as recently as 2007.
However, one fourth and two fifth-placed finishes in the last three seasons – and thus qualification to the Super League play-offs – under coach Daryl Powell has been built upon this time round, with Hardaker key to the team’s transformation.
Hardaker originally joined Castleford Tigers on loan in November after a short spell playing for Penrith Panthers in Australia. The full-back had been a key figure for Leeds, taking home the Man of Steel award in 2015 during the club’s treble-winning season, but after a poor follow-up campaign, during which the Rhinos were threatened with relegation, Hardaker requested a transfer.
Since joining the Tigers, Hardaker has been a revelation, scoring four tries in 17 games and being a key factor in the side’s thrilling playing style.
On completing the signing of a permanent deal, Tigers coach Powell said: “It says a bit about us that we have been able to attract him. He’s a big signing for us. It took him a while in pre-season to pick up how we play and he has just been getting better and better. You want to sign high-quality players for as long as you can and he is one of those players.”
The signing of Hardaker sends a message out to the rest of the Super League teams – Castleford Tigers are here to crash the party on a permanent basis.
Can Castleford Tigers win the title?
Some commentators are already suggesting that the Tigers have the League Leaders Shield sewn up after they defeated their nearest rivals, Hardaker’s old club Leeds (see more on that game in this article by 888sport) at the end of June.
However, the real test for the club will come in the post-season play-offs, where the Rhinos, St Helens and Wigan Warriors have dominated for over a decade.
Indeed, the Bradford Bulls, in 2005, were the last club outside of the “big three” to win the Grand Final, so it is testament to Castleford Tigers’ ability that a number of leading bookmakers are offering odds on the Tigers lifting the trophy at Old Trafford come October.
Hardaker’s move being made permanent should not have too much of an effect on the Tigers and, should they win six of their nine remaining fixtures, they will be guaranteed a home draw in the play-off semi-finals. Does history beckon for the Tigers?