Super League play-offs: Bad boys Jon Clarke and Zak Hardaker back on right track

Jon Clarke was sent to prison for assault, Zak Hardaker banned for homophobic abuse. Both hope to play leading roles in the Super League play-offs starting tomorrow night and tell Dave Hadfield how they found redemption by giving something back

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The Independent Online

Jon Clarke and Zak Hardaker might be at opposite ends of their rugby league careers, but both have had to learn some lessons the hard way.

Clarke, the veteran Widnes hooker for whom the Super League play-offs will mark the end of a long journey as a player, almost had it end before it really started when he was jailed for assault.

Hardaker, whose career is just picking up momentum with Leeds, was the first player in Super League to be suspended for homophobic abuse and was in danger of going into the play-offs with a second charge still hanging over him.

After his first ban he was contrite, apologised and accepted an invitation to meet the country’s only gay rugby league club, while Clarke is sent out by the Rugby League to talk to young players and warn them against getting into the kind of trouble he did when he was their age.

Now 35, Clarke was an  up-and-coming young player at Wigan when he became embroiled in a fight in a night club. “I got sent down and it was a long time before I got over that,” says the hooker, who will captain Widnes in their sudden-death semi-final against Warrington  on Saturday. “It was 2004 before I got back properly to my best form.”

He has made up for lost time since then in a successful decade at Warrington, with cup-winners’ medals and international caps to show for his efforts. He is now happy to speak at the “rookie days” the RFL organise for players new to Super League. “I talk about my experiences and how to avoid getting into the sort of trouble I got into,” he says.

In the other sudden-death semi on Saturday, Leeds  face Catalan Dragons as they attempt their familiar party-trick of winning Super League from well down the pecking order. To do that they will need a strong contribution from the 22-year-old Hardaker, who was named this week in the Super League Dream Team as the best full-back in the competition.

It was a target he set himself at the start of the season, but one he feared he had missed. “I thought the trouble I’ve been in and the matches I missed would count against me,” he says.

That trouble started when he was fined £2500 and sent home from England’s camp in the World Cup last autumn for a breach of team discipline – a euphemism for going out on the beer.

The repercussions of that were as nothing compared to the storm that broke over his comments to the referee James Child during a defeat to Warrington in May for which he was banned for five matches.

By way of penance, Hardaker went to meet gay rugby league club the Canalsiders, who are based in Manchester. “It was a real eye-opener,” he says. “They’re a great bunch of guys.”

All of which makes it the more disappointing for a sport which prides itself on its inclusivity that Hardaker should have been put under investigation for another incident when against St Helens last month the TV cameras caught him apparently blowing a kiss to an opponent.

It looked like a good-humoured response to some baiting aimed in his direction, but was probably not the wisest move for a man with his previous record. “I don’t feel that I’ve done anything wrong,” he said before the RFL called off its investigation this week.

“I just wanted the Rugby League to hurry up and rule on it, because it was hanging over me and over my family,” he adds. “It makes me sound as though I’m a homophobe, which one million per cent I’m not.”

What he is certainly is a very fine full-back, not far behind Sam Tomkins, England’s first-choice, now with the New Zealand Warriors.

Of the players in Super League, his strongest challenge came from an opponent this Saturday, the Catalans’ Morgan Escare. “He’s a different type of player, Hardaker says. “Very small, very quick; it should be a good battle between us. There are others, though. Elliot Whitehead’s a pretty decent player.”

Like Clarke, although for different reasons, Hardaker was not a player who was fast-tracked into Super League. Instead, he signed for his local club Featherstone Rovers, under the coaching of the current Castleford coach, Daryl Powell.

“He deserves all the accolades he has had this season,” he says of Powell, whose side play St Helens on Friday night. “It was him coaching me that saw me through the troubled years when I was 15 and 16.”

There has undeniably been some turmoil in Hardaker’s career since, but he takes a reassuring pleasure in going to Featherstone as a fan, meeting his old mates and still getting a warm welcome there.

“It’s brilliant that I can still do that,” he says. It is a sentiment that reveals a young man who, for all his record of stumbles, has his feet on the ground.

The busy Clarke has also been appointed Widnes’s new head of strength and conditioning and it is that he will be concentrating on next season. First, though, he has unfinished business against his former club and Michael Monaghan, with whom he split the hooking duties there for several seasons.

Monaghan has also announced his retirement. “So it’s the last game for one of us,” Clarke says. “Even if we don’t go any further, it’s still been a very successful season for us. When you look at the progression over the last five years, it’s phenomenal.”

Widnes’s first-ever involvement in the play-offs is the mark of that.