Anyone who has seen Zak Hardaker perform during the opening month of the new Super League season will know there is a swagger to his game, and a smile on his face. Hardaker’s Wigan side top the embryonic table and his early form was rewarded this past week with a return to the England fold – but crucially for the 28-year-old there is a smile on his face away from rugby, too.
Barely a year has passed since Hardaker returned to rugby league promising he had changed for the better following a period of his life that left many suspecting his career in professional sport was over. A failed drugs test resulted in a 14-month ban then he was arrested for drink-driving in late 2018 as he was preparing to make his comeback.
He had been involved in other misdemeanours earlier in his career and Hardaker’s fiercest critics are still waiting for him to trip up again. This time, however, you suspect something may be different: life away from his self-professed happy place, the rugby field, is as enjoyable as it is on it. “To say I’d be here, in this position, two years ago would be laughable,” he says.
“I was talking with Sarge [Dan Sarginson, Hardaker’s former Wigan teammate] the other day and when you think about it, I’ve got everything I need. I’d always struggled to be away from home and that didn’t help what was going on, but we’re settled here in Wigan, my partner has a job and I’ve my car back. Throw in the fact I’m lucky enough to still be playing the game, there’s nothing more I want. When I was younger I’d have taken being happy for granted, but when you come through the other side of all that stuff – most of which was self-inflicted – you can take a step back and appreciate everything I’ve got after what’s gone on.”
Hardaker has also been named in Wigan’s leadership group, another significant step for a player seeking to prove to his doubters that he is a better man post-suspension. “That’s a massive moment, for all the trophies I’ve won in my career … to be respected by your peers like that was massive,” he says. “The first thing I did was ring my mum and tell her.”
Hardaker’s mother has been inundated with positive phone calls lately. On Tuesday she was told by her son that Shaun Wane, the new coach, had given him his first England call-up since 2015, with the Ashes against Australia to come at the end of this year. There is still plenty of club rugby to be played in 2020 but Hardaker already has one eye on the prospect of righting some personal wrongs at international level. “I’ve never played against the Aussies for various reasons – some of them my own – so to be in Shaun’s first squad is a big moment,” he says. “It hopefully shows I’ve been doing something right since I came back.”
Hardaker withdrew from the 2013 World Cup squad because of an off-field incident, then his drugs ban cost him a place in the 2017 tournament. With a home World Cup on the horizon next year, there is plenty of motivation for him. “It’s always been my fault why I’ve missed the World Cup, and that’s something I want to put right,” he admits. “Shaun wants to put the pride back into England and I think we might have lost our way with that in the last couple of years. To be in his squad is a great starting point to make an impact.”
Before then, however, there is the small matter of continuing Wigan’s strong start to the season against Hull KR on Sunday. Thriving in a new role at centre is somewhat fitting for Hardaker, who seems at ease with his new life away from rugby across the Pennines after a turbulent few years that he may finally be putting behind him for good.