The Rugby League world loves a villain, a player that divides opinion, someone the home supporters love but the away fans hate. If you take a look around Super League, two players spring to mind as ‘marmite’.
Leeds Rhinos’ Ryan Bailey carries that title with pride, utilising his reputation to his advantage by launching his own clothing range. “He does what he wants” is the slogan, often accompanied by a screen print of Bailey with his tongue out and fists pumped.
The other player is bad boy turned model professional Gareth Hock, the former Wigan Warrior who looks to have finally found a home at The AJ Bell Stadium. When Dr Koukash unveiled Hock at a packed press conference back in September 2013 it really made a statement.
Making his first team debut in 2003 in the Challenge Cup tie at lowly Doncaster, Hock – or Charnock as he was known in his early years – bagged himself a brace in an impressive display, and from then on the Wigan-born forward never looked back. He was crowned Super League Young player of the year that season and was soon offered an extended contract.
Bad luck was soon to follow, though, as he was to be sidelined for 14-months after undergoing knee surgery. Hock kept himself fit and was to return stronger and was soon labeled as one of the best forwards in the world. He was even picked for Great Britain for the 2006 Tri-Nations series.
Such was his form Wigan were quick to cement Hock’s future, a four-year contract being penned that would keep him at the Warriors until the end of the 2010 season. By the end of 2008, Hock was becoming a Wigan hero, making over 115 appearances and scoring 25 tries.
Much has been documented about the next chapter in Hock’s career, after starting the 2009 season with some barnstorming performances, he would face some dark days. Hock played a starring role as Wigan defeated Salford City Reds but was picked at random by the RFL drug testers and tested positive for a prohibited substance. The presence of Benzoylecgonine (a metabolite of cocaine) saw him slapped with a two-year ban.
Despite being banished from the sport for so long, Hock was retained by Wigan who supported the young forward as he entered a period of rehabilitation for his drug use, assisting him as he spent his time working in the community educating young people about the pitfalls of substance use.
Speaking about the first six-months of his ban Hock gives an insight into just how little life experience he had outside of the game.
“That was the worst time – the time that made me realise how much more dedicated to rugby I should have been,” he said.
“I used to train hard but I was getting into mischief. I’ve changed my life around totally, becoming a dad helped me, knowing I have to provide for my sons and daughter is something that keeps me going.”
In 2011, while serving the final months of his ban, tragedy hit. Hock’s best friend and former teammate Terry Newton had taken his life.
“Wigan lifted the Super League trophy but I stayed at home, because of what happened with Terry,” he recalls.
“I was his best friend, I received the help but Tez didn’t. If he would have received the help I did, maybe we he would still be here today.”
The loss of Newton hit Hock hard but also reaffirmed to him how short life is. He returned to the Wigan first team in July 2012 against Huddersfield and made an instant impact, culminating in one of his finest seasons and selection in the league’s ‘dream team’. Despite those accolades, he had played his final game in the cherry and white of Wigan.
Rumours were circulating that NRL side Paramatta Eels had struck a deal with Shaun Wane to sign the back-row duo of Hock and Lee Mossop. Despite having over a year left on both players’ contracts a financial package was agreed. What would happen next though was to leave the Warriors’ supporters stunned. There was to be no final farewell season – Hock had played his last game for the club and chairman Ian Lenagan wasn’t happy.
“Gareth Hock has made it clear in face-to-face discussions with me and via his agent that he has no intention of playing for the Wigan club,” he said.
“This is hugely disappointing to me; to the Wigan fans and to the Club who have all treated him well.
“We have gone to unique lengths to help him get his life back on track after his ban two years ago including increasing his contract voluntarily on two separate occasions to help him financially against a backdrop of his threats to leave.
“The club has consistently supported the player and has done all that any club could be asked to do. Since Wigan and I are not prepared to allow Gareth Hock to play for one of our major competitors, we have decided to retain his registration and to allow him to move on loan to Widnes, with whom we have an excellent relationship. He is not allowed to play against Wigan in any competitions. Having stood by Gareth Hock, we feel let down by his attitude under both Michael Maguire and Shaun Wane since returning to play for Wigan.”
The move away from Wigan made Hock public enemy number one in the eyes of the Wigan faithful who deemed his move a slap in the face for a club that had supported him so profusely.
Unveiled to a packed press conference, Hock appeared relieved and relaxed, with no regrets about leaving the club he had joined as a 12-year-old. The move to Widnes helped no doubt by the fact his brother-in-law and housemate was Widnes skipper Kevin Brown. Despite the scrutiny, Hock rolled back the years, not without the odd misdemeanor (notably a four-game ban for making ‘deliberate contact with a match official’).
Hock made 18 appearances for the Vikings, scoring on 10 occasions. So it was somewhat a shock, and also a statement of intent, when in September Hock was unveiled at the launch of the new look Salford Red Devils spearheaded by the Lancashire club’s millionaire racehorse tycoon Dr Marwan Koukash.
It was a signing that no Salford supporter could have envisaged, lining up in front of the country’s media, Hock was paraded alongside Rangi Chase, Adrian Morley and Tim Smith.
The capture of Hock on a four-year-deal demonstrated Salford’s new pulling power, and the Red Devils supporters were rapturous with the thought of having the enforcer playing in Red. He’s the type of player Salford have been missing for nearly 15 years.
With his future secured, ‘Butcher’, as he is known, capped off a great season being named in Steve McNamara’s England Squad for the impending 2013 World Cup.
If breaking a mirror brings bad luck, Hock must have been wondering if he had unknowingly smashed several throughout his life when it was announced a week later that he had been “removed” from the England Squad.
The official England statement said: “This is as a result of serious breaches of team discipline that have fallen below the strict code of conduct as agreed by team management.”
The news soon filtered back to Red Devils owner Koukash and many critics were quick to share the opinion that Hock was bad news and his signing would be a huge mistake for Salford. Despite the Media circus, Koukash stood firm and insisted that Hock would be an inspired capture. It later transpired that the 30-year-old forward and some of his team-mates went on a night out after the surprise defeat by Italy.
In an interview soon after, Hock admitted that he had overslept the morning after, which meant he had missed a recovery session. Even though several of his colleagues also been out drinking it was only Hock that was dismissed.
The decision and the way in which it was delivered was something that riled Hock.
“For missing a 10-minute swim – I think it’s out of order really,” he said.
“I agree that it was wrong and we shouldn’t have had a drink, but there were six or seven of us and we all did the same thing,”
It would be hard not to agree that Hock had been made an example of, his detractors quick to tar him as the forever-bad boy who had let his country down. Internet forums were busy celebrating his dismissal as proof that a leopard would never change its spots. For Hock, though, he instead focused on turning his disappointment into motivation, with a new club and a supportive owner he set about getting as fit as possible for the his new life as a Red Devil.
As I write this, we are over halfway through the season and it has been nothing short of disastrous for Koukash. Knocked out of the Challenge Cup in the 5th round and parting company with coach Brian Noble, it has been a season of headlines for Salford. Despite being stranded at the lower end of the table there is one player that can be certain of self satisfaction, and that’s Hock. The way in which he has performed both on and off the field has been one of only few positives.
With a Houdini-like ability to offload, Hock has frustrated the opposition and delighted home spectators. That, in addition to his barnstorming runs and ability to remain calm despite wind-up tactics, has seen him established as the new hero of Salford.
Although he may come across as unapproachable and sullen, Hock is in fact a shy and affable man, always courteous and willing to help out with charitable causes and junior Rugby League.
There is no escaping he has made mistakes, but ostracising young men has no benefit. To educate and support our more difficult stars can only reap rewards for the future.
On social media, Hock is regularly singled out for abuse due to the fact he has difficulty with spelling. What those people don’t know is that Hock, like thousands of other young men and women, has a longstanding educational need. He was diagnosed as a ‘level two learner’ and has incredible difficulty with numeracy and literacy.
The man we see before us today has overcome many difficulties in life, the early separation of his parents, the loss of several lifelong friends, a drug addiction, the alienation and ongoing learning difficulties. It is with respect and admiration that I firmly believe the redemption of Gareth Hock is finally complete.