Rugby League Expert
Zak Hardaker vs Jake Connor: Battle of the full-backs as Wigan Warriors face Hull FC in Super League
Ahead of Thursday's live Super League clash between Wigan and Hull FC, Sky Sports rugby league pundit Jon Wells assesses the attributes of opposing full-backs Hardaker and Connor
Last Updated: 29/04/21 4:18pm
Two of the Super League's most colourful characters go head to head this Thursday as Zak Hardaker and Jake Connor take the field as opposing full-backs for Wigan Warriors and Hull FC respectively.
Both men are very much at the top of their game, both have had outstanding starts to the 2021 season - but these are two very different players.
Zak is all about industry; big metres, lots of carries, plenty of questions asked of opposition defensive systems, high percentage goal kicking and loads of talk. He bosses his defensive line, barks orders and drills his middles into the right positions, enabling them to be effective defenders.
All this invariably means Zak wields a big influence on a game as a standard and then, every now and then, he throws in a flash of unadulterated, instinctive brilliance.
If that sounds like an abstract set of meaningless superlatives, then go and watch his try on 34 minutes in Wigan's Round 3 victory over the Leeds Rhinos and it'll provide all the context you need.
There is also a fairly hefty sub-plot to Zak Hardaker's career and it is one of natural talent, early fame and recognition, mistakes, errors of judgement - to be kind - and now, it appears, redemption.
I do not condone the actions of Zak the Younger, but it is hard not to acknowledge the journey he has been on or recognise the change and maturity in his character.
Zak Hardaker's 2021 Super League stats so far
|Ave. metres gained:||10.05|
Jake is different - just as good, but different. Coaches and pundits alike have talked, and continue to talk at length, about how best to maximise his influence on a game as Connor is the definition of a multi-positional player.
Well, I think the combination of the unfortunate and long-term injury to Jamie Shaul, the previous occupant of the full-back jersey at Hull FC, and the incoming coach just happening to be a previous Man of Steel winning full-back - and a man a young Connor looked up to when both were at the Huddersfield Giants - has addressed part of the perceived "problem" with Connor.
Under Brett Hodgson, he now has the licence and the natural involvement rate that the full-back position affords to assert his influence readily and repetitively on a game.
The other nagging concern had been about Jake's own headspace - that he has a tendency to drift in and out of matches, leading to the inevitable "why can't he just be brilliant more consistently?".
That's the thing with brilliance. It plays to its own tune, dances to its own dance. To be clear, that's what I think we have here because Jake is a real maverick - and anyway, the joke is seemingly on us.
Last week he drifted in and out of Hull FC's Round 4 match against Wakefield Trinity, then drifted back in on 73 minutes and won the game for them with a wonderfully-disguised short ball to Carlos Tuimavave.
Finally - and this is a real cause for celebration in a sport where the default attitude has always been self-deprecation - they know they're good and are ready to tell people about it.
Zak has been quoted in Wigan's local press this week as rating himself the best defensive full-back in the last decade, adding that he doesn't mind saying it and he's ready to back it up.
Jake Connor's 2021 Super League stats so far
|Ave. metres gained||Six|
Brilliant! It's the story that writes itself this week. All we have to do is sit back and watch, and on the form of the first month you couldn't argue with Zak.
Unless, perhaps, you were Jake Connor.