Zak Hardaker gave a candid interview when he signed for Wigan last week, so what more could he have to say? Quite a lot, as Phil Wilkinson discovered...
Start at the beginning. How did you react when you discovered you had failed a doping test?
I got a call on the Thursday before the Grand Final – it was a day off – saying I’d tested positive and I was suspended immediately. I just ran off. I grabbed my bag, called my girlfriend, and went to Cumbria. I turned the phone off and went and stopped in a log cabin in the woods for five days. I just needed to get away from the world. I didn’t know what to do.
Did you watch Castleford’s Grand Final defeat?
No. We were watching a film at the time, and my head was just ticking and ticking, and I was thinking, ‘Please win. That would help me’. So I turned my phone on and kept refreshing the score on Sky Sports. They were down at half-time. I turned it off. Then turned it back on after a bit, found out they were losing... I was devastated. I felt so sorry for the boys.
Did you feel responsible for the loss?
Massively so, yeah. I feel that if I’d played, we’d have won. All week, I was telling people we were going to win. And then on the Thursday I was told I was banned and wouldn’t be taking part.
Weren’t you nervous beforehand, given you had obviously been tested after a game, two days after taking cocaine?
A little bit, but I had shut it out. It was a case of, ‘I’m going to hear something’, and then there was nothing. Next week, no. The third week came and there was nothing. I was thinking, ‘I’ve got away with it’ – then the call came Thursday. I was devastated.
How are you now?
For a couple of months, I didn’t leave the house, I didn’t go to the supermarket – I felt like everyone was staring at me, and talking about me. Then – and I don’t know what it was – but one day something just clicked and I thought, ‘You know what? There’s more to life. I’ve not killed anyone, I’ve just done something stupid’. My missus and I had just bought a house, I needed to pay the mortgage so I got a job straight away – it’s a cleaning firm. I work in sales, but if they were short-staffed I’d go and help out and got my hands dirty. I put my head and shoulders back and thought, ‘I’m going to crack on’. And that’s what I’ve done.
Were you resigned to being banned for two years?
At first, yes. But I told my solicitors my situation – a footballer got a reduced sentence, because of his circumstances – and I said if there’s a chance to get it reduced, I’d like to. I went to UKAD and told them my story. Then it came through that the ban had been reduced to 14 months.
If you had been asked a year ago whether a player taking cocaine deserved a two-year ban, what would you have said?
It’s a tough situation. It’s one of those... especially now I’ve seen (the TV documentary) ‘Gordon Ramsey on Cocaine’, it’s just an epidemic in the world. People take it socially, not for a performance enhancement. I took it for personal circumstances that night. I don’t think it should be two years but it should be looked at. I don’t know how they go about it, whether they adapt a three-strike rule, but it’s a delicate subject to talk about.
I’ve had people tell me I’m a drugs cheat – I’ve not cheated. If anything, it would put my performance lower than a person who’s not took it. I definitely think it should be revisited.
How confident can you be there won’t be another relapse at the next anniversary of your distressing incident (details of which were redacted in the UKAD verdict)?
I’m all right now. It was just a weird one – my girlfriend was at work, my parents were away – my head was thinking a million things. I went out, trying to forget the thing I had been thinking about, and it escalated. I ended up forgetting what I was doing and where I was. I ended up taking (cocaine). I wasn’t even thinking.
But you’ve apologised for past off-field issues – what’s different this time?
Before, even if I’d been suspended, I was involved in rugby league. And now – watching it on TV, not being around lads – it’s frustrating, I felt like I’ve wasted a full year of myself.
I know, for a fact, if I have any issues outside, I’ll talk to someone. I’ve found that difficult before and I’ve just bottled it up, and that’s been the problem.
How do you feel when you watch games on TV now?
It boils me. I get angry. I watched Saints-Cas last weekend and I thought, ‘It’s my own fault I’m here and not playing’.
How do you think your signing will be greeted by Castleford fans?
I’d say 70 per cent bad, 30 per cent good. When it first came out (about the failed test), they terminated my contract straight away.
Were you surprised by that?
No, because I’d breached my contract, so it was fair enough. But I tried to stay there and I said, ‘Look, can you keep me on, pay me minimum wage, can you keep me on...’
I expressed I wanted to stay. They did offer me a contract but it was a low one, my solicitors’ fees were through the roof and the contract didn’t match up to the fees, so I said, ‘Look, I can’t take that because my fees are nearly as much as my wage’. I think they understood. And then for four or five months, I heard nothing.
I wanted to stay and repay them, but it wasn’t to be. I believe things happen for a reason and now I’m looking forward to this move to Wigan.
How did the interest from Wigan surface?
It was maybe February time, I went and met Ian Lenagan. I spoke to him about my past and I think it was a judgement call from him. I told him what I wanted to achieve in my career. Toronto were the first to come in for me, and the chance to play in Canada did appeal. But as soon as Wigan came in I jumped at it.
Were you really a Wigan fan as a child?
Yes. I was a full-back as a kid and Kris Radlinski was my favourite player. Believe it or not I was little, my nickname was Little Zak, until I was 14 or 15 and I shot up and now I’m 6ft 2in. I changed my allegiance to Leeds – United and Rhinos – because my mates were telling me I couldn’t support Wigan. But yes, I was a Wigan fan.
Wigan tried to sign you in 2010, did you consider a move then?
I wasn’t aware of it! Kris told me they got in touch with (chairman) Mark Campbell, but apparently Leeds had sorted a fee and all I got told was Leeds were interested, and I signed there.
What position do you see yourself playing?
Obviously I want to play full-back but I’ll play anywhere. They still have (Morgan) Escare, so I haven’t got a clue where they want me – if it’s centre, back-row, I’ll slot in anywhere.
There will be fans who think, ‘Why have we signed him?’
I know, and it frustrates me, because if you know me you’ll know I’m not too bad.
Rugby league has people from different backgrounds... I don’t want to be portrayed as someone who always gets it wrong, but not everyone is Mr Right.
It’s just people who don’t know me, they see what I’ve done and think (negatively).
But to be fair, if you didn’t know someone and you saw a track record like that, wouldn’t you think the same?
Yes, 100 per cent. That’s why it’s good if I start engaging with people. If someone asks me a question, I’ll try and be me. On the pitch, it’s easy for me. I’ll put my heart into everything on the pitch. This move will give me a chance to engage with the fans and let them get to know me a bit before next year.
I can train with the lads from August, and I’ll be moving over to Wigan, and I can get involved with the club. It’ll be good to get to know the lads before I start, and hopefully help them out in any way I can.
Have Wigan been supportive or have they not needed to be?
I’m good, I know where I’m supposed to be. I’ve spoken to them a bit. My head space was good last year, it was just the sticky situation in September – but it won’t happen again. I know what I need to do if I’m low or down. I’m good, my contract is done, I’ll be moving over in a couple of months, and then my full focus will be on Wigan.
So what would your message be to those who are still sceptical?
Just give me time. Moving over here is a big thing. Wigan is a big community club. I’ve spoken to a few of the boys and I know Wigan is a club which looks after you. But I can say there’s nothing to worry about. I’ll be here with my girlfriend, and I’ll be concentrating on what I want in life, and that is to be successful at rugby.
You’ve signed a four-year deal with Wigan – what are your ambitions?
I want to win trophies, I want to be in the England side. I want to be Man of Steel again, 100 per cent. I want the fairytale ending now. This has been the last bad chapter in the book. As soon as I lift a trophy, I want to think, ‘I know where I’ve been and where I am now’, I want this to be a journey.