Zak Hardaker has revealed how he uses his past adversity as “fuel” to help achieve personal and professional dreams with Leigh, on the eve of the Challenge Cup final at Wembley.
The Leopards full-back admits he is now one of the “old men” at a club enjoying a stunning season, and believes his own controversial career has helped shape a person and player that remains respected and feared in equal measure.
And now in an exclusive interview with Love Rugby League, the 31 year-old has revealed how a painful path of learning has allowed him to enjoy some of the finest moments of a career that he feared may have gone.
“When you go through sh*t in life it makes you forget what it feels like for good things to happen,” Hardaker says.
“And even in the good times I’ve had shit happen. I feel like my life and career has taken me on a rollercoaster but I think I’ve come out of the other end now.”
Hardaker’s on-field renaissance has been a key factor in Leigh’s emergence from relegation certainties to Challenge Cup finalists and Grand Final contenders.
“I didn’t expect this when I signed, although the sky was the limit. It was more about what can we do, while all the outside noise was about us not getting relegated,” he adds.
“Life for me looks different to what it did even three years ago.”
But it is easy to forget how far the 2015 Man Of Steel has come too.
That stunning Man Of Steel season at Leeds saw the Rhinos win the treble as well as Hardaker earning the game’s most prestigious individual honour.
But trouble followed his electric talent everywhere.
The first stay at Leeds brought three Grand Final wins, three League Leaders’ Shields, two Challenge Cups, a World Club Challenge and three Dream Team recognitions.
But it also brought a premature departure from England camp for “acting unprofessionally”, a heavy ban for homophobic language on the pitch, police interrogation over an alleged assault that prompted more disciplinary action and a further apology, before Leeds lost patience and got rid.
“I’ve created a lot of adversity for myself so I’ve had to find a way to use it all as fuel,” admits Hardaker, who next hit the headlines when he tested positive for cocaine at Castleford, just days before his big shot at redemption in the 2017 Grand Final against Leeds.
An olive branch from Wigan was almost jeopardised by a drink-driving ban and despite a fine return to form, the Warriors stay ended prematurely too.
The list is long, the learnings have been huge, but the time for his critics is short.
Hardaker knows his flaws and believes adversity has been his secret weapon.
“I’m in a place now where I love anything that is said negative about me,” he says.
“I can put my own spin on it and use it as fuel as much as possible.
“I’m 31 and I have two kids, life for me looks different to what it did even three years ago. I appreciate the little wins, the waking up on a morning with a smile on my face and coming in to enjoy training, winning on a weekend, enjoying the weekend with my kids and family, and now getting to Wembley at 31 with kids who have never experienced it.
“I like the serenity, it is refreshing and nice to experience when you go through a lot of crap and then come out of the other side and be good makes me happy.”
Zak Hardaker on Leigh Leopards role
His 2023 form is strong and his outlook has matured. So is the latest version of Zak Hardaker the best yet?
“Performance-wise I was probably playing better in 2015 but my role at the minute is more than the 2015 role,” he explains.
“Then, I was in a star-studded team which totally eclipsed anything I could ever have imagined. Now I’m one of the old men and people are talking about my experience.
“I enjoy trying to lead the boys, leading the meetings, talking to everyone and I think being around for a while gives you the right to do that.”
Leigh are genuine contenders for both of the British game’s major domestic honours, starting at Wembley on Saturday.
And much as Hardaker has used his personal critics as fuel, he believes the team has done the same.
“I thought it was disrespectful to write us off straight away at the start of the year.
“We spoke about it as a group and it quickly became evident in training that we had special players and a special coach plus the hunger of (owner) Derek Beaumont.
“This year has been brilliant, it has been a buzz around the place ever since we changed name to the Leopards.
“I’ve won a Super League from fifth with Leeds so who knows what we can do in the play-offs.”