Zak Hardaker, sacked by Castleford, awaiting the outcome of his drugs hearing and publically admired by Shaun Wane. Sometimes 2 + 2 doesn’t equal 4, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Hardaker announced as a Wigan player, as soon as details of his hearing are released.

Potential signing a complicated matter

The potential signing of Hardaker due to the circumstances is, well, complicated to say the least. Perhaps a few years ago, a player being banned for taking a recreational drug during competition would result in a two-year ban, without much hesitation.

There are, unfortunately, lots of examples of this across Rugby League and Union, see Gareth Hock, Matt Stevens and recently, Rangi Chase. So, for Zak, there is a very clear precedent set for the length of any impending ban. However, recent events have perhaps given Hardaker grounds for optimism that the ban he is likely to face, may not be the standard two-year ban.

Ben Barba, was banned for 12 competition games in Rugby League after, like Hardaker, failing a drugs test for cocaine.

Significantly though, Barba was found guilty outside of the NRL season, four days after the Grand Final and because of this, his ban was also significantly issued by the NRL rather than WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency)or an anti-doping agency. Hardaker’s case is being heard by the UK Anti Doping Agency (UKAD), so the precedent of Ben Barba’s case may fall on deaf ears at UKAD.

Ray of light

The one, possible ray of light for Hardaker in trying to get a ban that is lower than the standard two-year ban many are expecting him to receive, is the curious case of Hardaker’s former Leeds teammate, Ryan Bailey.

Bailey, unlike Hardaker, failed to provide a sample to UKAD upon request and faced a four-year ban for doing so. However, Bailey’s defence was based on a fear of a sample being contaminated but perhaps most significantly for Hardaker, was Bailey’s state of mind. This could be an area in which Zak Hardaker also has grounds for a suggested reduction in a ban, citing the personal struggles that have been well documented during Hardaker's career.

Hardaker is very likely to face a ban, a ban of anything between 12 games and two-years and the guesswork above is just that, guesswork. Whatever UKAD will set another precedent for the future, for any further drugs issues in the sport; so the Hardaker case will be another landmark case in Rugby League, whatever the result.

Wigan rumblings

Despite the possible ban, the rumblings of interest from Wigan have been rife over the past few weeks with these escalating last week when it was announced that Hardaker had been sacked by Castleford. A strange move for a club that had paid Leeds, £150,000 less than 12 months previously to make his loan deal, permanent. A move that is even stranger when in January, Castleford head coach, Daryl Powell stated:

“You never say never, I sat down with Zak after it all happened and yes, there is potential for that, but it’d depend on him and what happens to him. We just have to wait and see on that.”

“Zak is a good kid, he’s made a few too many mistakes but ultimately he’s a fantastic rugby league player and I think there could be [a future] for him,” Powell said.

“The club has been fantastic for him and we’ll have to wait and see what the future holds.”

Within a month, Hardaker has been sacked and Shaun Wane has publically praised Hardaker’s playing ability, saying:

"Zak is a fantastic player and any player of his calibre that comes up we'd be interested in. But I've not heard anything. I don't look after that, it's down to (chairman) Ian (Lenagan) and (rugby director) Rads (Kris Radlinski). I admire him like I do many other players in Super League and the NRL. He's a natural rugby player and can play anywhere."

Behind the scenes

The change in tact from Castleford suggests that something is going on behind the scenes involving Hardaker and possibly Wigan.

There is a well-known, let’s say, competitiveness between Wane and Powell and their comments about Hardaker in the past week suggest that Shaun Wane may be on the verge of getting the former Man of Steel from Powell, on a free transfer.

So how does Hardaker fit in at Wigan, should he sign? Well, he is 26, a two-year ban would mean that Wigan would be banking on signing a 28-year-old, two years in advance.

A very strange and unprecedented move which again, adds fuel to the fire than a two-year ban may not be a given and that perhaps Wigan has some grounds for confidence in this.

Let’s say, for argument's sake, Hardaker is given a 12 match ban from now and does sign for Wigan. What would Wigan be getting in mid-2018?

Well, they would be adding a third fullback to their squad that has played at international level with Sam Tomkins and Morgan Escare. But perhaps tellingly, they would be adding a player that has played a lot of his career in Super League at centre and represented Penrith Panthers in that position back in 2016. Wigan are desperately short on quality and strength in depth in the centre position, they have Super League Young Player of the Year, Oliver Gildart holding down the left centre position but the return of Dan Sarginson to Wigan, to replace Man of the People, Anthony Gelling has yet to look like an inspired signing by the club.

Beyond Gildart and Sarginson, there is a real lack of depth, however, with youngster James Worthington, the only young centre of note to perhaps be pushing for a first-team jersey any time in the near future. The re-signing of Liam Forsyth from Bath RU last season has also failed to get the Wigan fans juices flowing with the centre currently on dual registration at Swinton Lions, where he played on the wing at the weekend.

Will it become a reality?

So, the rumoured signing of Zak Hardaker is perhaps one of the most unlikely of Ian Lenagan’s tenure at the club and one that has a lot of pieces to make the jigsaw complete for all parties. It is also a signing that will be greeted with much animosity by some.

However, it is the one signing, speculative that it may be, that could turn Wigan from a team with top-four potential to one of silverware potential. A backline of Tomkins, Burgess, Gildart, Hardaker and Davies looks very impressive on paper but only time will tell as to whether it will become a reality.