ENGLAND stars Ryan Hall and Kallum Watkins both believe there is a problem with drugs in rugby league.
The Leeds Rhinos pair were asked about the issue after former team-mate Zak Hardaker became the third Super League player to test positive for cocaine in just three months.
Castleford Tigers full-back Hardaker, 25, was suspended and dropped by his club for Saturday’s Grand Final loss to Leeds and has been left out of England’s World Cup squad.
On Monday, he apologised for his “enormous error in judgment” and is facing a possible two-year ban.
Wakefield Trinity’s Adam Walker and Widnes Vikings’ Rangi Chase were both suspended by their clubs in August after testing positive for cocaine and Hardaker’s admission has raised questions about whether the sport has a wider issue with which it must deal.
Asked by The Yorkshire Post if there is a big problem with drugs in rugby league, Hall said: “I think the stats are proving so at the moment.
“I don’t know what more we can do as a sport as I think all the protocols are in place; everyone knows you get tested, everyone knows it’s against the rules...
“But obviously this is a warning to everyone; no matter who you are you will pay the penalty if you get caught. It’s a risk they take.”
Hall won three Super League titles and two Challenge Cups alongside Hardaker during their six years together at Headingley before he moved to Penrith Panthers last June and then on to Castleford for £150,000 this term.
“It’s worrying really,” added the 29-year-old, speaking at England’s final media briefing before flying to Australia tomorrow for the World Cup.
“We need to support him. Rugby league is great in that respect; if anyone is in dire need, it always comes out of the woodwork to support whatever the cause and I think we need to do that with Zak.
“He’s a great talent. There’s no doubting that – the calibre he has, winning Man of Steel in 2015 and runner-up this year – so we need to do our best with him and make sure he comes back to rugby league strong.”
Hardaker has had off-field problems involving alcohol and anger issues, but Hall was surprised by his latest indiscretion.
He said: “I thought Zak was in a good place. From how he left Leeds, to how I saw him at the back end of last year, I thought that six months with Penrith had freshened him up. Then having signed at Castleford this year, I thought he was in a good place.
“Obviously I know him personally off the field and he was on a good track. He’d just got a house and I thought it was all going nicely for him so it was a little bit surprising to see that he’s come out and shot himself in the foot.”
Asked if there is a bigger problem with cocaine in rugby league, Leeds centre Watkins conceded: “Yes, I guess so. Players are getting caught now and it’s getting a bit too much.
“I am really good friends with Zak and I am really gutted for him. It’s a mistake he’s made. He has to take full responsibility. He knows that. But he has to get as much help as possible, too.
“He’s going to get criticism – that comes with the territory – and he has to be able to deal with that. But at the same time he has to know that he has people behind him as well who hopefully can help him out.
“I’ll always look out for him as best as I can. Anyone that has an issue, the best thing to do is to get help. I know it’s hard, but they have to do that.”
Man of Steel Luke Gale, the England scrum-half who starred with Hardaker at League Leaders Castleford this term, does not feel drugs are widespread.
“I wouldn’t say the sport has an issue with drugs – it’s like any sport really,” he said.
“No, I don’t think we’ve got a problem with drugs. I’ve sent Zak a text here and there (since last Thursday), because obviously he’ll be really disappointed and feel like he’s let us down. But he’s a great talent, a good fella and he’ll be bitterly disappointed. It’s a sore subject, but we move on.”
Admittedly, since UK Anti-Doping formed in 2011, only two rugby league players have served a ban for the stimulant found in cocaine compared to five in both football and rugby union.
England assistant Denis Betts, who was Chase’s club coach at Widnes when the ex-England stand-off tested positive, said: “I had this with Rangi; I’ve no malice towards these lads because they’re just kids who’ve made mistakes and done something stupid. This is not a rugby league issue though, this is a society issue. He (Hardaker) has got issues, he’s always had issues and it’ll get to a point where he might have to make some decisions about lifestyle and what he does next.
“Society in general has some things to deal with, and it’s just a young man who has background issues with where he grew up, anger issues he’s dealt with, and he’s got money in his pocket.
“It’s hard for me to comprehend as it’s something I’ve not been involved with – but I can’t see what he was even thinking.”