The darkest times will always serve as a reminder for Zak Hardaker about where he went wrong, but these days, he has more reasons to look to the future. It was perhaps inevitable that when Hardaker reached his first Grand Final since the failed drugs test on the eve of the 2017 final, the conversation would lead naturally to the events of three years ago, when he tested positive for cocaine just days before Castleford Tigers side made their first appearance at Old Trafford.
“No, absolutely not – I tried to vanish abroad as soon as news of the positive test came through,” he tells the Guardian when asked if he watched the 2017 Grand Final from home, as Castleford fell to defeat without him against Leeds.
“We ended up disappearing to the Lake District, with no signal and nobody around. I was desperate for them to win, because if they didn’t, the backlash would be worse. I switched my phone on with five minutes left, saw they were losing and turned it off. I opened a bottle of whisky and tried to forget about life.”
Back then, Hardaker’s distractions were his downfall, costing him two years of his career. Today, they are the making of him. Now 29, settled in Wigan and with the birth of his first child on the horizon, a man who has bravely admitted to struggles with mental health and substance abuse has always seemed in a good place on the rugby field. Now in a good place off it, too. “I don’t really look back anymore,” he admits. “I’ve still not watched that Grand Final to this day and I probably won’t.
“When I was younger, playing for Leeds and Castleford, I never really thought about how much it meant to have this opportunity. But now, at 29, with a baby on the way and with the support network I’ve got from people at Wigan, it gives me that motivation to go out there and succeed for my family and for the people who have stuck by me.
“When you sign for a club like Wigan, you realise what it means to represent this town and this club, and as you get older, it’s easier to appreciate those kinds of things.”
Hardaker had been written off by his critics before he had even touched a ball for Wigan due to his past misdemeanours, but in the two seasons since his return to the sport, he has re-established himself as one of the competition’s best players, earning a Great Britain call-up at the end of last season due to his form.
Victory against St Helens in the unusual setting of Hull in Friday’s Grand Final will guarantee him his fourth Super League title, which will surely be the sweetest yet given his turbulent journey.
“If we do win, maybe one day I’ll look back and say I can be proud of how I’ve come back from where I was, but right now, my focus is on this club and the people of this town, who have given me so much when I was at such a low point,” he says.
“Wigan has been through some hard times this year, and there’s a lot of our elderly supporters who haven’t been able to leave home because of the pandemic. Let’s give them something to be proud of. Any stories about me are secondary really.”
Hardaker’s seamless switch to centre, in light of the incredible form of full-back Bevan French, is also another measure of his maturity. “If a coach had told me three or four years ago I was getting moved from full-back, I’d have probably stormed out of training, thrown some tables and not turned up the following day,” he admits.
However, there is still one problem for Hardaker to contend with in Grand Final week this time around – but unlike three years ago, it is a happy dilemma. “My girlfriend’s due date is right around the corner and I’m dreading my son is going to arrive in the next few days,” he laughs. “My mum told me she’d had a dream he came on Grand Final night and I was torn over what to do. My partner has been on the balancing ball, which can induce labour, and I’ve begged her to leave it for just one more week. It’s a nice distraction to have for a change, though.”