Peter Smith’s Inside RL: ‘As good as it gets’ on the pitch, but not necessarily away from it for some players

Zak Hardaker. PIC: Bruce Rollinson
Zak Hardaker. PIC: Bruce Rollinson
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ONE OF the stars of the new Leeds Rhinos documentary As Good As It Gets? is 2015 Man of Steel Zak Hardaker.

He was the outstanding player three years ago when Rhinos completed the historic treble of Challenge Cup, league leaders’ shield and Grand Final trophy, which the film is set around.

Jamie Peacock. PIC: Richard Sellers/PA Wire.

Jamie Peacock. PIC: Richard Sellers/PA Wire.

There are some revelations in the movie (Wigan wanted to sign Rob Burrow!), but its most interesting aspect is the insight it provides into the characters who made up a champion team.

Jamie Peacock, for example, talks about the pain he suffered after games late in his career and admits he found it difficult to reconcile contrasting aspects of his character – the person he was trying to be off the field and the aggressive individual his job demanded on it.

Since he joined Rhinos from Featherstone Rovers at the end of 2010, Hardaker has never been far from the headlines and they haven’t all been positive.

In terms of his rugby, nobody doubts he is a rare talent. One of the modern game’s best defensive full-backs he is also an outstanding attacking player who played a full part in Rhinos’ 2015 success and for Castleford Tigers last year when they finished 10 points clear at the top of Betfred Super League.

Rangi Chase. PIC: Simon Hulme

Rangi Chase. PIC: Simon Hulme

Off the field it is a different story and Hardaker has fallen from grace on several occasions. Leeds ran out of patience towards the end of 2016 and he was sacked by Tigers three months ago after his first season there.

That followed his positive test for cocaine following Tigers’ Super-8s win over Rhinos in September.

The news broke a couple of days before the Grand Final and Tigers, without Hardaker, suffered a heavy defeat by their fierce rivals. So fans going to see As Good As It Gets? may have a slightly different image of Hardaker to the human being who appears on screen.

Contrary to some opinion, he is not a yob.

The real Hardaker comes across quite clearly, an affable, engaging character, but one who has an unfortunate habit of making poor decisions and getting himself into bother. The world is full of people like that, but, as an elite sportsman, Hardaker lives his life in the spotlight, even if only at local level and he is saddled with the ‘role model’ tag.

In the week he was banned from all sport for 14 months, backdated to last September, Hardaker appears on screen revealing for the first time the story behind his exit from England’s 2013 World Cup squad. Spoiler alert, it involves alcohol and fighting. He also talks about sometimes getting in from a night out at 4am and being picked up two hours later to go to training, hardly the behaviour of a model sportsman and in stark contrast to, for example, Kevin Sinfield who comes across in the movie as the ultimate professional he undoubtedly was.

Many of the fans who go to see As Good As It Gets? will have been among those condemning Hardaker’s so-called lenient sentence this week.

The full anti-doping hearing judgement is set out in a 14-page report, but boiled down, it reveals his suspension was reduced from the expected two years because he did not take cocaine to enhance his playing performances.

A precedent has been set now and the likes of Rangi Chase and Gareth Hock, who got 24-month bans, will no doubt feel aggrieved.

Those with cases pending will also have taken close notice. But the report also refers to unspecified personal issues and, rather than being abandoned, it is right the game supports him when he returns. Not everyone with personal problems resorts to booze and drugs – Hardaker had supped six-to-seven pints of lager, shared a litre of vodka and a litre of whisky and drunk spirits before being offered the cocaine – but some do and they won’t break the cycle without support.

If, as expected, he signs for Wigan, the reception he receives from Castleford fans is unlikely to be welcoming and they have a right to feel let down.

But, as the film illustrates, rugby league may be a sport which requires superhuman attributes, but the individuals who play it are real people, with real imperfections and they should be treated accordingly.