Hardaker set for full-back role
Zak Hardaker will cap a tumultuous first full season of Super League when he makes his England debut against Wales in Wrexham on Saturday.
The Leeds full-back, who turned 21 last week, will wear the number one jersey for his country after Wigan's Man of Steel Sam Tomkins was formally ruled out with a knee injury.
England coach Steve McNamara has yet to name his team but, with Warrington utility back Stefan Ratchford ruled out through illness, he admitted Hardaker was an obvious choice for full-back for his side's opening autumn international.
"Sam is doing tremendously well but he won't be fit this week," McNamara said at the team base in Preston. "Hopefully we might get him back for next week."
Hardaker, the newly-crowned Super League Young Player of the Year, began the season with Leeds at centre but switched to full-back following the loss of Brent Webb to injury and revelled in the role.
McNamara added: "The kid's form has been really good all year and particularly at the back end of the year.
"When he moved to full-back, he took over a pretty big pair of shoes in those of Brent Webb and his game went to a different level.
"It's great for Zak and it's great for us that we've got another player capable of playing very strong in that position.
"It puts some pressure back on Sam Tomkins, which is what we need across the park for all our players.
"Sam is an exceptional talent but he needs that pressure of competition as much as anybody."
England will also be without 2011 Man of Steel Rangi Chase, who today announced he would be staying at Castleford for next season, after he picked up a groin injury during the 10-day training camp in South Africa.
But Wigan hooker Michael McIlorum is now available to make his debut after the Rugby Football League confirmed that England Knights' Alitalia European Cup game against Ireland in Belfast enabled him to complete a three-match ban.
McIlorum missed the Warriors' last two matches of the Super League season following his dismissal against St Helens and it was thought he would have to complete the ban during the international campaign.
"The disciplinary people have said he's available to play," McNamara said. "We were going to play him against Ireland last week for the England Knights because it's been a long time since he played and we were really keen to get him some game time."
McIlorum, who played for Ireland in the 2008 World Cup, has been below James Roby in the pecking order since switching his allegiance to England but will now get his chance with the St Helens hooker opting to sit out the autumn internationals.
McIlorum is the only specialist hooker in the 24-man squad but McNamara denied England were bending the rules to make him available.
"He's served his ban," McNamara said. "We don't make the decisions.
"The rules are set by the disciplinary committee. It's nothing to do with England. The Knights are part of the England programme and we were going to play him in that game."
McNamara was due to announce the team to his players later today but is unlikely to make it public until an hour before kick-off.
In addition to Hardaker and McIlorum, England could also give first caps to prop forwards Chris Hill (Warrington) and Luke Burgess (South Sydney).
"There will certainly be some players on debut this week, which is great," McNamara said.