Talking RL: '˜Signing Hardaker would be a gamble... but one which could pay off spectacularly'

It's not unusual for a player to polarise opinion among fans.

Thursday, 1st March 2018, 10:47 am
Updated Thursday, 1st March 2018, 11:50 am
Not all fans are happy about Wigan's interest in Zak Hardaker

But what’s strange about the Zak Hardaker saga is even those opposed to Wigan’s interest in him agree with those in favour – that he can play.

He’s already won one Steve Prescott Man of Steel and was shortlisted for the top award last year, too.

People talk a lot about his attacking attributes, but what’s caught my eye over the years has been his defensive efforts, both under the high-ball and his try-saving tackles.

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He’s 26, he can play centre or full-back, and he’s a free-agent.

At a time when it’s becoming increasingly difficult to recruit top-quality players, Hardaker would be an asset for Wigan.

Their interest, though, doesn’t sit comfortably with some fans. And it isn’t because of his abilities on the pitch, but rather, what he has done off it.

Hardaker is currently suspended after testing positive for cocaine on the eve of last year’s Grand Final. He has since been sacked by Castleford as he awaits for UK Anti-Doping to conclude its case against him.

He missed the Grand Final, missed the World Cup and right now, he’s missing the start of the season as he wants to find out what UKAD do next.

I doubt there will be any movement – in terms of his link with Wigan – until after the issue is finalised.

And when it is resolved, if all the noises are right, he may end up moving to Wigan.

I’m fine with Zak getting a second chance (even a third or a fourth one, if you’re counting his track record).

But, obviously, when you look at how Hardaker’s time at Leeds and Castleford have ended, it’s understandable that some are asking questions.

If he’s had trouble before – kicked out of an England camp, a ban for homophobic abuse, assaulted a student, doping suspension – what assurances can there be there won’t be any again?

Shaun Wane, though, is confident he wouldn’t be a ‘bad apple’, describing him as a “fantastic person”.

When Wane has talked about having good people at the club, I’m pretty sure he hasn’t meant only having players with whiter than white backgrounds.

He used the example of Micky McIlorum, difficult for different reasons, as a player they helped make into a better person.

Gaz Hock, likewise.

Of course, with everything that has gone on, signing Hardaker would represent something of a gamble.

But it could be a gamble which pays off spectacularly.

Some people are excited at the prospect of Eddie Hearn getting involved in rugby league.

The boxing promoter – who has also worked wonders in darts – was pictured having a coffee with the RFL’s interim chief executive Ralph Rimmer earlier this week.

I’d welcome any input from anyone who can improve the game, increase the size of its footprint on the sporting landscape and attract more fans and, ultimately, investment.

Good on Ralph, I say, for being open-minded when he’s hunting for the top-job permanently.

But I’d argue what rugby league needs more than marketing invention and media hype is common-sense and clout.

It doesn’t need a genius to figure out many of its problems.

Leeds CEO Gary Hetherington may think I’m being urine-poor for suggesting it, but we still don’t know what structure will be in place next year.

Don’t know if there’ll be promotion and relegation, don’t know if there’ll be expansion.

Only three Super League teams are bothering with reserve teams this year. Salford aren’t even running an Under-19s side.

This week, the RFL confirmed England will play New Zealand in mid-season. In Denver.

We get so used to the short-notice, no-one really kicks up a fuss any more – but the bottom-line is many fans wanting to attend this historic event have just four pay-days to try and save up for it and book the holidays.

As for the players taking part, my colleague, friend and fellow-ACDC-loving journalist Steve Mascord tweeted this week: “If reports are true the NRL has threatened clubs with fines if they don’t release players for (the Test) then the NRL is to be thoroughly congratulated.”

He’s right, of course.

But is that what we’ve come to? Congratulating the NRL for doing what other sports do as a matter of course?

Rugby league should listen to Hearn.

At worse, no harm can be done. At best, he will give the sport some helpful pointers.

But many of the game’s problems could be fixed without radical, new ideas.

Good to see ex-Wigan hooker Micky Higham deciding to lace the boots up to play on for another year at Leigh.

And good to see the tweet from his old mate Paul Wood: “If anyone attended the Micky Higham retirement dinner in January, email 
[email protected] for a full refund.”

Gold!