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Thursday 17th Jul 20:00 Round: 21
Previous Super League Meetings
10 - 23
24 - 24
14 - 22
42 - 24
28 - 12
Leeds Rhinos full-back Zak Hardaker will be a man on a mission when he makes his return from a five-match ban in Thursday night's First Utility Super League derby with Castleford Tigers.
The 22-year-old was banned for making homophobic comments to a referee during a match at Warrington Wolves in May, but demonstrated his penance by taking a coaching session at a Manchester-based LGBT rugby league team during his suspension.
"It's been tough for him," Leeds coach Brian McDermott said. "He hasn't enjoyed any of it. But he realised he made an error and he's got on with it.
"He's done some work in the community and by invitation he went over to the Canalsiders, who are a gay and lesbian team. Zak and myself went over to coach them and we had a great evening. We had a good laugh and a craic.
"We went over there with a fair amount of humility but we enjoyed it."
It was the second time in seven months that Hardaker was prompted to issue a public apology.
He was thrown out of the England camp during the 2013 World Cup for a breach of discipline, but responded by producing the best form of his career for his club to earn a recall to the international squad.
And McDermott is expecting a similar reaction this time.
"I think he's got more of an incentive now after the England episode," the coach said.
"That was a tough call on Zak and he had a long time to wait before he could do anything about it. He had all pre-season and he lost his holiday.
"But he was one of if not the best full-back in the world before he got suspended, and his incentive is to get back to that form. That's a good carrot dangling in front of him."
Hardaker is a straight replacement for Ben Jones-Bishop, who has been assured by McDermott that he still has a role to play for the Rhinos before he moves to Salford Red Devils at the end of the season.
"Bish got a bang on his knee but he would be okay to play," McDermott said. "He wanted to play so I've had a dilemma and told him I'm going to play Zak.
"It was a tough call to make because Bish has been in good form. He's not happy and I don't expect him to be, but that's not to say he's not going to feature again this year. I'm sure he'll play some part before the end of the year."
McDermott is keen to field his strongest side for the most eagerly-anticipated derby for years. It could also be a dress rehearsal for next month's Tetley’s Challenge Cup final.
The winners at Headingley will go top of the table, at least for 48 hours, and Castleford are showing no sign of faltering in their pursuit of a first top-four finish in Super League as well as a trip to Wembley.
"This is probably the biggest Leeds-Cas clash we've had since I've been coaching here," said McDermott, who is in his fourth season with Leeds. "Cas are in the best form they've had for years.
"It was a tough game against them earlier in the year. We regard that as one of our good wins of the season."
Even Castleford coach Daryl Powell has been surprised by his team's performances this year.
Asked if at the start of the season he expected them to be challenging for top spot, Powell responded: "Probably not. I was hopeful that we would be around the eight, competing to be in the top eight.
"I was having a tough job earlier on in the season of convincing anybody outside the club, but the players have been immense in the way they've gone about their business.
"The key for us now is to continue to get a little bit better and maintain our focus and keep our nerve.
"We've got some big games coming up, starting with this one.
"I can't see anything that tells me the players are not going to do that."
Castleford have recalled full-back Luke Dorn and former Leeds second rower Weller Hauraki, with Marc Sneyd set to revert to stand-off.
The Rhinos are boosted by the return from injury of forwards Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Kylie Leuluai.
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