Zak Hardaker is loving Leeds Rhinos' life ahead of the Super League Grand Final
Leeds' Zak Hardaker admits he is living the dream he prepares for a second consecutive Super League title decider.
Last Updated: 03/10/12 4:24pm
Hardaker was a teenager playing for Featherstone in a Championship Grand Final just two years ago but has enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame.
As well as being Super League's newly-crowned young player of the year, the 20-year-old's career could be about to get even better after he was named in Steve McNamara's England squad.
Looking back at the last two years, Hardaker said: "I have to pinch myself. I was involved in the Championship awards two years ago with Featherstone and that was overwhelming.
"But now I've been to the Man of Steel and it keeps getting better.
"I've always believed in myself and backed myself to get into Super League but it's come really fast. It's unbelievable, something I'm really proud of. It's been a really special two years."
Snapped up from Featherstone as a winger, Hardaker got his chance due to injury last season and made the most of his opportunity by scoring 12 tries in 15 appearances, including one against St Helens in last October's Grand Final.
He was handed Keith Senior's old number four jersey at the start of this season and featured at centre when the Rhinos beat NRL champions Manly Sea Eagles to win the World Club Challenge in March.
The ever-present Hardaker - he has scored 21 tries in 36 games so far this year - was switched to full-back by coach Brian McDermott in mid-summer when Brent Webb suffered a knee injury and, such was his impact there, he kept the spot when the experienced Kiwi regained fitness.
Now it seems likely Leeds will now abandon their plans to sign a new full-back for 2013 and instead focus on plugging the gap at centre.
Hardaker said: "If they ask me if I want to stay at full-back, I'd say I would but if they also asked if I would play on the wing, I'd say yes. I would rather play in any position than none at all."
If the youngster has looked comfortable in the full-back role, it might just be because of his experience in his formative days in junior rugby when he dreamed of following in the footsteps of Wigan and Great Britain full-back Kris Radlinski.
"I had a short stint there when I was younger," he said. "I didn't really know which was my postition but I was fast and I loved catching those high balls.
"It was rare that I dropped them so that was a bit of a hint I suppose. Full-back's a great position, I really enjoy it.
"Growing up I used to watch Kris Radlinski. I was fascinated by him. He had electric pace, no-one could touch him. Now I try to take a bit from everyone and try to do my own thing as well."
Hardaker also rates Warrington's veteran Australian full-back Brett Hodgson, his opposite number on Saturday who is 14 years his senior but playing as well as ever.
"He's brilliant, especially at the age he is now," said Hardaker. "They're the guys you look up to."