Rhinos launch Hardaker defence
Leeds have sprung to the defence of full-back Zak Hardaker, suggesting he may be the victim of a witch-hunt over further allegations of homophobic abuse.
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The 22-year-old England international served a five-match ban earlier this year after being found guilty of making homophobic comments to referee James Child during Leeds' Super League game at Warrington on May 30 and now the Rugby Football League is investigating claims that he made an abusive comment during last Friday's home defeat by St Helens.
Hardaker was shown on television mouthing a comment to Saints forward Mark Flanagan, which was apparently heard by match referee Richard Silverwood, and Leeds say the RFL has employed the services of a lip reader to aid their investigation.
The Rhinos stood by their player following his ban in June and on Wednesday called for an external investigation into the actions of the governing body and its officials into their "vigorous" pursuit of the alleged incident.
Leeds chief executive Gary Hetherington said: "We are concerned there appears to be a witch-hunt by the RFL towards Zak Hardaker and we are calling for an external investigation into the issues surrounding the investigation.
"We know the match commissioner was asked by the media at the post-match press conference if the referee had reported any incident or comment and they were told 'no'.
"We want to know why the referee's report quite mysteriously now contains a reference to a possible comment.
"It seems incongruent with the RFL's stance and the vigour that they are now pursuing this incident with that the referee would not have reported this to his superior on the night, as is the protocol in these circumstances, or taken action during the game.
"We understand a St Helens player has been interviewed and he has stated he did not hear anything. There is a hint of mystery about the whole issue and the use of a lip reader has added a new dimension to on-field conduct, particularly when games are televised."
A spokesman for the RFL declined to confirm whether the services of a lip reader were being called on. "An investigation is taking place," he said.
Leeds confirmed that Hardaker would play against Wigan in Friday's top-six clash at the DW Stadium.
Hetherington added: "Whilst the RFL deliberate, we will continue to support Zak and at the same time press the RFL for clear transparency about the whole process."