Talking RL: Why Zak’s error was more baffling than you may have thought

Zak Hardaker was all smiles after helping Castleford reach the Grand Final
Zak Hardaker was all smiles after helping Castleford reach the Grand Final
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Zak Hardaker’s failed drugs test for taking cocaine has baffled many.

Why, with a Grand Final and a World Cup on the horizon, would such a talented athlete take such a massive risk?

Look into the detail, read the rule books, and his indiscretion becomes even more puzzling.

There’s a misconception cocaine is a banned substance because players are role models.

Not true.

Some drugs are banned all the time - steroids, an example - for obvious reasons. Cocaine isn’t; it’s only banned ‘in competition’, because it’s a prohibited stimulant.

Now for another popular misconception - that ‘in competition’ means ‘in season’.

It doesn’t.

‘In competition’ refers to the period from 12 hours before a match until (forgive the dry language of the anti-doping book) ‘the end of such competition and the sample collection process related to such competition.’ Hardaker failed a test taken after a match.

Of course it was; the rest of the time, cocaine isn’t banned.

It is, of course, still illegal, so a player caught taking it - say - the day after a match, could be arrested.

He could also be disciplined by his club, too, if he were pictured or seen taking it.

But he wouldn’t be banned by the national anti-doping authorities if, say, he took a test on the Tuesday and it was in his system.

Because that would be ‘out of competition’.

The only risk a player has is if he is tested ‘in competition’ – game day – and cocaine is traced.

For chronic and abundant cocaine consumers, the detection window can be big. But otherwise, it’s common-knowledge cocaine passes through the system quickly. Even the Government-funded drugs advice website states a urine test will only stay positive between 12 hours and three days.

Which makes cases like this even more frustrating and baffling. The error of judgement is staggering.

Why would a player risk taking cocaine so soon in the build-up to a game?

This is his career! And what a career, too; he was rightly short-listed for the Steve Prescott Man of Steel this year after a stellar campaign, and I was looking forward to seeing him play for England.

I hope Hardaker is getting all the support he needs.

I believe him when he says he didn’t take it to enhance his performance – I’m so un-rock ‘n roll, I can honestly say I’ve never even seen cocaine, but I know that’s not why people, players, take it.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think someone caught taking cocaine in-competition should face as severe as punishment as someone who takes a banned substance – steroids, for example – to deliberately cheat.

But players know the rules.

I’m staggered so many (three this season) still choose to risk breaking them.

This Grand Final, more than any other in recent years, seems to have sparked a debate about whether it’s a fair way of deciding the Super League title.

Castleford were the best side all year, and all that.

How can Leeds, who finished 10 points behind, be rightfully called champions?

But they finished 13 points behind table-toppers Warrington in 2011, and I don’t recall any tears for the Wire... just banter that it would be their year, next year.

And in 2012, when Leeds finished 10 points behind leaders Wigan, I don’t remember many moans when the Rhinos won the Grand Final.

There was no self-pity, either, from the Wigan contingent; and Wigan’s players didn’t feel they had robbed anyone when they did get their hands on the trophy the following year.

They accept the system.

Even if some fans can’t get their heads around it.

And I understand why.

Play-offs are a fair way of deciding champions for sports where teams don’t meet each other. Or even in the NRL, when they don’t play all the other teams twice.

But it must be baffling for them that, in English rugby league, there are enough sides to just play each other home and away, yet they still insist on a one-off game to decide the champion.

Maybe it would help if they stop comparing rugby league’s structure to football, and instead liken it more to Formula One.

Whether you win qualifying by a minute or a split-second, the reward is the same - pole position on the starting grid in the main race.

The only difference is, in rugby league, qualifying lasts for 30 weeks, the main race for two.

In big games, teams don’t need a magician or a miracle-worker.

They need a master of their trade - and we saw that in the Grand Final.

Nothing Danny McGuire did was particularly flashy, but it was hugely effective, and it was little surprise to see him unanimously, deservedly, win the man of the match award.

He left Leeds on a high - as did Rob Burrow.

What a career he has had. The smallest player on the pitch has often stood tallest, and in a game of monsters and menaces, it’s been great to see there’s still place for players who get to the top through skills and speed, rather than size.

Super League is over, and my focus has quickly turned to the rugby league World Cup.

England’s squad was announced on Monday.

I was surprised by Sam Tomkins’ omission from the World Cup squad, and Kevin Brown’s inclusion, and the fact there are only two wingers.

Some people say the squad should be picked on form. No, the criteria is blindingly obvious – who does Wayne Bennett think will get the job done.

He has had to weigh up form with trust earned from England duty in the past; hence Ryan Hall and Jermaine McGillvary are in there, and Greg Eden isn’t.

Some of the ‘outrage’ reaction has been laughable; of course some good players have missed out.

It’s a squad of 24 - what would it say about the depth of England’s talent, if there weren’t good players left home?

On the World Cup, the defection of so many big-name stars to Tonga has made them the genuine dark-horses.

Who else is in their group?

And how many qualify for the knock-out stages?

Sadly, you won’t find the answers to those questions on the official World Cup website - you need to look on Wikipedia for that.

How poor.

I hope it’s changed.

The official site does list the fixtures, in a chronological order, and glancing at them highlighted another disappointment - all the games are on weekends.

There are no matches Monday through to Thursday. What a pity.

One of the big joys of the 2013 tournament was watching games midweek; the Tuesday night thriller at Leigh between Tonga and the Cook Islands, the Wednesday night cracker between USA and the Cook Islands in Bristol... they kept the momentum going.