Hock ready to seize second chance
Almost exactly three years ago I wrote a scouting report outlining why young Wigan forward Gareth Hock should be in England's World Cup squad.
Hock made the squad, but the following season he tested positive for cocaine and was handed a two-year ban.
He is now 27, and this week signed a new five-year Wigan contract, barely a month back in training. That news provoked a mixed response, and some raised eyebrows, among my media peers and fellow fans, but the Warriors have made it clear that the contract is "contingent upon his continuing exemplary performance".
But how big is the challenge now facing this former international when he returns to Super League next month? It is a challenge not only of convincing his doubters, and opposition-fan hecklers, that he should command respect once more, but of returning to the very summit of this brutal sport.
Hock offloads the ball during Wigan's Magic Weekend game with St Helens in 209 - photo: Getty
I spoke this week to Ryan Hudson, the Castleford captain, now back at the top of his game after himself serving a two-year drugs ban in 2005.
Hudson was sacked by Bradford without playing a single game of a three-year contract, after he tested positive for the banned steroid stanozolol.
By contrast, Wigan have stood by Hock during his suspension and Hudson believes the Warriors were right to afford the player another chance.
"Anyone can make a mistake but only a fool makes it twice," he told me. "It's not what happens, it is how you react and that comes down to who you are as a person, so only Gaz can control how he responds now."
One thing for certain is that Hock cannot wait to get back on the field. I've spent a couple of games on the back row of the press box at the DW Stadium this season, with him sitting in his suit in the row behind. He was feeling every hit, throwing every pass and applauding every score.
"I'm expecting Hock to make a massive impact when he returns," said Hudson. "I think he'll find it tough, tougher than he may expect. It might take him a month to get his match fitness, as no amount of training can prepare you for that.
"He's returning into a much better Wigan side now with more quality players so that should help."
How tough will Hock find it though? When you serve a two-year drugs ban, you are not even allowed to train with the squad.
Hock has recently cleared to resume training by UK Anti-Doping, even though his ban doesn't actually expire until June 23. So how on earth do you keep yourself in the right kind of shape to be able to step back in at the top level as soon as the suspension ends?
"Training to return after my ban was like training for the Olympics," said Hudson, who describes his ban as the toughest two years of his life.
"It is such a long time. Every month is a goal, and you keep setting yourself new goals as when you are playing Super League the goal is just the end of the week.
"I found the game had moved on a little while I served my two-year ban, but it's like life - life moves on and if you have to take two years out of life for one reason or another then it is very different when you start living your life again."
Hock's mental approach to his suspension saw him tackle a drugs rehabilitation programme, while his physical approach has been helped by a personal trainer.
But Hudson believes such an exile from the game changes you not just as a player, but as a person.
"I learned that as a rugby league player you live your life in a bubble and you shouldn't really moan about working 10 or 20 hours a week. In the real world people have to run businesses and work 60 or 70 hours a week to get by so we are very lucky," he said.
"Life is about getting a balance and a perspective. I hope Gaz has learned from what he did and can move on.
"I learned that there is more to rugby league. I believe things happen for a reason and you deal with it and move on."
Hudson is living proof that a player can bounce back after serving a ban, leading the Tigers' charge at the right end of Super League. But will Hock be treated differently by his peers when the England international returns to the game as a player known to have used drugs?
My good friend Jamie Bloem, a former South Africa international, served a drugs ban - in fact, Bloemy was the first rugby league player to test positive for performance enhancing anabolic steroid nandrolone. It was never quite the same for him when he returned, but Hudson says Hock will be fine.
"None of the players treated me differently on my return but the fans did and you'd expect that," he says. "You get the usual grief from opposition supporters but you don't dwell on it as to live in the past is to stay in the past."
Whether he gets a rough ride or not, Hock returns with a point to prove and an England shirt to win back and Hudson reckons he'll do both.
"Hock will be in the England squad at the end of the year, I'm sure of that. He was a quality player before and that won't have changed. I'd be very surprised if he didn't make it.
"He will come back fresh and be ready to explode after two years without training. He'll feel awesome and ready to rip in. He'll be great for England and good on him."
My personal view is the same as Hudson's. Everyone deserves a second chance and Hock is no different. He made a mistake and should be afforded the opportunity to prove it was just that.