Zak Hardaker ditches alcohol on his path to redemption

Zak Hardaker is beaming, a grin etched on his face as he happily awaits questioning from the press.

There’s little doubt that Hardaker is proud of his achievements in 2019, with a recall at international level his top accolade after sweeping the board at Wigan’s end of season awards night.

But neither is he surprised. This is the same Zak Hardaker who backed himself to win the Man of Steel this year, despite missing the previous season serving a drugs ban. He’s hardly short of confidence.

But despite the many individual glories he has to bask in, there is one accolade he is particularly enthused by in this encounter.

“The first award I won at the Wigan awards night was the community award,” Hardaker brings up unprompted.

“I was talking to my girlfriend and I heard the word safeguarding. I knew I’d done that this year, and then they said my name for the award.

“I’ve received Man of Steel and done some good things in my career, but that’s probably the nicest reward I’ve ever received.

“I’ve never been perceived as a community man, have I?”

There’s a cheeky grin on his face as he says that sentence, an acknowledgement of the many misdemeanours that have tainted his undoubted brilliance on the field.

It’s been said before, only for the pundits to be proven painfully wrong, but Zak Hardaker seems like a changed man. Finally, it appears he has overcome his demons.

“Over the last few years I’ve been selfish and not respected the rugby, my girlfriend and family,” he says.

“This year has been a massive turning point. Off the pitch it’s been massive, just turning a new leaf. It’s just about looking after everyone else and making sure they’re happy, not just myself.”

The key to that has been so simple yet so hard. Distancing himself from alcohol.

“It’s a bit weird, because I’ve not done much different, just the drinking. I drink hardly at all any more. I do, but not a lot, and I’m not doing the nightclubs, which in the past has been a big issue. I’m just being a grown-up.”

Kicking the habit has been far from smooth sailing. At the end of 2018 he was charged with drink-driving after crashing his car. As a result, Wigan sent him into rehabilitation.
The biggest challenge has been kicking a habit that he has associated with success throughout his entire career. Rightly or wrongly, Hardaker had incorporated alcohol into a lifestyle that helped him to become an elite athlete at the top of the sport. Learning to perform without it, and refusing to fall back into his old ways, brought challenges.

“It’s hard to explain that to someone who is squeaky clean,” he admits.

“I’ve been in that way of life for ten years. I remember at Leeds a couple of years ago, I stopped drinking for two or three months to be the biggest and fittest I could be. And I remember this so well. I played in Danny McGuire’s testimonial game against Bradford. From the start of the game I dropped the ball, straight from the kick-off.

“Straight away I told myself ‘that’s because you’ve stopped drinking’. That’s how my mind worked. I told myself I was going to go back to my old ways, back to drinking. That’s what I’ve always done and it worked for me. Sitting here now and saying it, it was just stupid!”

Even now, Hardaker admits that he gets the itch to go out and knock the shots back from time to time. But now he knows how to make sure that he doesn’t scratch the itch.

2019 has been full of challenges for Hardaker. Leaving Pontefract and moving to Wigan, kicking alcohol and recovering his top form only begin to scratch the surface.

Great Britain selection now presents another challenge.

Going on a Rugby League tour exposes a player to many things. Among them is alcohol.

“It will be a great test for me,” admits Hardaker.

“I’ve been tested throughout the year, both rugby and non-rugby wise, and this is both together.

“You know what comes with tours; you go out drinking and I’m fully aware of that. Look, I’ll have a good time, but I’m going to make sure I’m okay. I don’t want any headlines about me because it will spoil the great year I’ve had.”

Hardaker’s return to Rugby League in 2019 has been nothing short of remarkable. Even so, he reckons he’s only been playing “at around eight out of ten” every week.

But most satisfying has been his ability to stay out of the limelight.

“I feel like I’m really sound now. I feel knowledgeable.”