Former Penrith utility back Zak Hardaker says he was prepared to fight to get back into the England Test side after being omitted last year, and some lessons learned at the Penrith Panthers helped him do that.
Hardaker's Castleford Tigers are dominating the UK Super League, not only leading the comp with nine wins from 12 games but have racked up mountains of points to be sitting on a scarcely believable +257 differential, scoring on average 37.5 points per game.
Hardaker's 60 tackle busts are the second best in the Super League and his 10 try assists are fifth best of all players – trailing only the league's best halfbacks and five-eighths while his 1,585 total running metres is third best in the competition.
While Aussie fans didn't get to see the best of the 2015 Man of Steel in his limited stints off the Panthers bench last year, the 25-year-old says his time down under was a factor in him earning his first Test cap since 2015.
"I think I've improved my game towards the back end of last year and really took some improvement and detail from Penrith," Hardaker said.
"I had a really good pre-season back home and I've been playing pretty well over there so I'm in a pretty good place at the moment.
"I think [the Penrith stint has] done really good for my game. Just the little one-percenters that people might not pick up on, the training was quite difficult and intense and just little things like that I've picked up and really tried to take back to Castleford this year and I think it's just really helped my game this year."
He still follows his former teammates, despite their struggles through a 2-7 start to the year.
"100 per cent I still follow the team," he said.
"I try and wish the lads good luck whenever I can and if I'm awake I watch the games and I record them. I know they're not travelling too well at the moment but they've got such a young exciting team, it's real exciting for years to come anyway."
Hardaker said while getting dropped from the England set-up last year was unfortunate he just had to fight his way back in – particularly given the added importance of Test football in 2017.
"That really made me want to achieve big things this year with it being the World Cup," he said.
"I've tried to pull my finger out and play better rugby and that's what I've been doing so far. That's the message for everyone I think.
"I feel like I've earned the right to play. I've been picked which is the first step. I'm in the squad, the next step is to try and get in the 17. I'm really positive but whoever he goes with that's up to Wayne (England coach Wayne Bennett)."