Gareth Hock will tonight resume the international career he did his best to ruin. The Wigan back-row forward is back in the England fold for the International Origin match against the cream of Super League's overseas players.
That is after serving a two-year ban for cocaine use and destroying his chances of an immediate return to the Test arena last season by earning an eight-match suspension for gouging. This season, he has just returned from a two-match ban for his part in a punch-up with St Helens.
There are those who question whether this is the record of a man who should be welcomed back with quite such open arms. Not surprisingly, Hock, his captain and his coach are not among them. "I think I've earned a second chance," Hock says. "When I was banned, I could have gone right off the rails, but I've worked hard. I've been going around the schools and I volunteered to be drug-tested every week."
He has cleaned up that aspect of his act, but the question remains over his short fuse and the ability of opponents to wind him up. There again, Hock believes he has changed his spots. "I think I've done well with controlling my temper. That last ban, there wasn't much in it."
Hock has undoubtedly had a cooler head since making some changes off the field. He has a new girlfriend and a baby son and gives a wider berth to some of his old mates.He was also pulled up short by the death of his friend Terry Newton, which gave the most graphic illustration possible of how a sporting career can go tragically wrong.
At 28, Hock has plenty of time to get his career back on track, starting tonight at Langtree Park. He admits that the ambition to return to Test rugby was one of the things that sustained him during his self-inflicted exile. "I want to pit myself against the best back-rowers in the world," he says.
What is not in dispute is his ability. It was once said of another player that tackling him was "like tackling a bag of chisels"; encountering Hock's angular bulk must be like tackling a sack of power-tools.
On top of that, he has deft hand-ling skills and plenty of that elusive commodity, rugby intelligence.
"He's been far and away the best forward in Super League this season," says his captain against the Exiles tonight, Jamie Peacock. "He's paid for what he's done and he's a good example of someone who should get a second chance in life."
Peacock has had his own intimations of mortality this week, with some very public questioning of his credentials still to be leading his country. The former Leeds and Great Britain captain Garry Schofield accused him of playing "like a man of 40", sparking a furious Twittersphere spat between the two men that the current incumbent might have been better to stay out of.
Peacock says the only opinions of his performances that he cares about are those of his coach and team-mates. "I've the utmost confidence in all the players, particularly Jamie Peacock," says that coach, Steve McNamara. "I've known him as a character and a player for a long time and I know he will have been saving one of his best games for this weekend."
The pressure on senior players to maintain their standards is underlined by the absence tonight of Adrian Morley. Fresh faces are the new right-wing combination of Josh Charnley and Carl Ablett, with the Wigan prop Lee Mossop on the bench. McNamara sticks with Kevin Sinfield and Rangi Chase in the half-backs, keeping Danny Brough waiting to wear an England shirt.
- More about: