ENGLAND full-back Zak Hardaker cited a “number of personal traumas” in mitigation as he received a 14-month ban for taking cocaine.
He was expected to face a two-year suspension after the drug was found in his system following Castleford Tigers’ game against his former club Leeds Rhinos last September.
However, Hardaker, one of the sport’s leading talents, will now be free to resume his career as early as November with Wigan Warriors reportedly ready to take him on in 2019.
He admitted the offence and was sacked by Castleford in February ahead of yesterday’s announcement, but saw his legal team argue that as a result of a “number of exceptional circumstances” he “bore no significant fault in committing an Anti-Doping Rule Violation (ADVR)”.
Following a one-day hearing in front of the National Anti-Doping Panel the 26-year-old was charged by UK Anti-Doping.
Hardaker, the 2015 Man of Steel, was represented by Leeds-based Chadwick Lawrence Solicitors who, in a statement, said: “We believe the correct verdict has been returned and we would like to thank the Tribunal for their professionalism.
“This was a truly exceptional case, where the drug use was never linked to performance enhancement.
“In this regard Zak would never take any substance to achieve an unfair advantage and we are pleased that the decision of the Tribunal has recognised this fact.
“He was commended by the Tribunal for his impressive, comprehensive evidence and the fact that he made no attempt to downplay his conduct and was utterly frank with them.
“The last two years have been an extremely difficult period for Zak who, away from the public eye, has bravely battled a number of personal traumas.
“Zak has asked for privacy at this time, but thanked his family and close friends for helping him through this difficult period.”
Pontefract-born Hardaker, who won the treble with Leeds in 2015, had enjoyed a brilliant debut season at Tigers when news of his failed drugs test broke just two days before their Grand Final appearance against Rhinos in October. Castleford had won the League Leaders’ Shield – by a record margin of 10 points – for the first time in their history and also reached a maiden Grand Final.
However, with their plans in disarray after Hardaker’s shock omission, they lost 24-6.
Castleford had initially taken him on a season-long loan from Leeds, but paid a £150,000 transfer fee to their rivals in June and handed him a four-and-a-half year contract.
In his evidence, Hardaker explained he had been very upset by the anniversary of a “distressing personal incident” on the night he took cocaine.
He claimed he did not normally drink midweek or take drugs, but went out drinking with a friend after a training session and had six or seven pints of lager before sharing a litre of vodka and a litre of whisky.
He then continued drinking spirits and, when offered cocaine, took four or five lines.
UKAD Chief Executive Nicole Sapstead said: “Regardless of how it got there, every athlete is solely responsible for what is in their system and must adhere to the strict liability principle.
“They must ensure that they take the appropriate steps to manage the risk at all times.”
Hardaker was suspended on September 8, 2017, so will be eligible to return to play the sport on November 7 this year.
In 2014 while at Leeds he was banned for five games after being found guilty of homophobic abuse in a match against Warrington and a year later he agreed to take an anger management course after admitting assaulting a student.
After the failed drugs test, with the help of Castleford, he gained a job outside of the sport as he awaited his fate.