Zak Hardaker: Castleford Tigers full-back banned after positive drugs test
England and Castleford Tigers full-back Zak Hardaker has been provisionally suspended after testing positive for cocaine and will miss the World Cup.
The 25-year-old was omitted from the Tigers' squad for Saturday's Grand Final loss to Leeds Rhinos and was not named in England's squad on Monday.
Hardaker's failed test came after a Super 8s game against Leeds, his former club, on 8 September.
He could be suspended for two years as a result of his positive test.
In a statement on the club website, Hardaker said: "I would like to apologise to my team-mates, the staff and all fans for my enormous error of judgment.
"I was given an opportunity by this great club and in what has been one of the most important weeks in its history, I have let everyone at the club down. For that, I truly apologise.
"Finally, I would like to make it clear that in no way did I, nor would I, ever take a substance with the intention of enhancing my performance."
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Hardaker was one of three nominees for Super League's Man of Steel award, having scored 13 tries in 30 games as Tigers won the League Leaders' Shield for the first time, and was expected to be named in the England squad for World Cup in Australia.
"The Rugby Football League can confirm that Zak Hardaker is provisionally suspended from all competition after it received notification from UK Anti-Doping that he had tested positive for a banned substance," read a statement from the RFL.
"He will therefore not be considered for the England Rugby League World Cup squad due to be announced on Monday at 12:00 BST."
The RFL and Castleford said they will be making no further comment until the outcome of the case has been determined.
Hardaker absence 'a big disruption'
Castleford said on Thursday that Hardaker had been left out of their Grand Final squad because of a "breach of club rules".
Speaking after Saturday's 24-6 defeat by Leeds at Old Trafford, head coach Daryl Powell said: "I still thought we had a team out there that could have won the game if we'd played anywhere near our potential.
"But if you take a player like him out of any team, it's going to be a disruption.
"You take your full-back out two days before the game, and you have one session of preparation - it's clearly not going to help.
"It is what it is. There's absolutely nothing we can do about that."
On-field brilliance, off-field problems
Hardaker joined Castleford on an initial loan deal for 2017 that was later made permanent, after a stint in Australia with Penrith Panthers.
That brought his six-year spell at Leeds to an end and reunited Hardaker with Powell, who gave him his break at Featherstone Rovers.
At Leeds, Hardaker won three Grand Finals, a Challenge Cup winner's medal and the 2015 Man of Steel prize.
But his on-field brilliance has been marred by off-field problems throughout his career.
'He still has a chance for redemption'
Analysis: BBC rugby league correspondent Dave Woods
If you met Zak Hardaker, your likeliest first impression would be of a lovely lad who is endearingly honest about the mistakes he's made. The problem is that he keeps making those mistakes.
Despite his outstanding rugby league talents that were taking him to the very top in the game, his career is now defined by his wrong choices off the field.
Currently the best English full-back around and tipped to get even better, he will instead be remembered for missing the 2013 World Cup because of a boozy brawl on the eve of the tournament, being effectively kicked out by Leeds for a catalogue of off-field indiscretions and now missing a Grand Final and another World Cup for this latest catastrophic choice of behaviour.
It's incredibly frustrating to team-mates and fans that so much talent has been squandered. But he still has a chance for some redemption.
Without pre-judging any mitigating circumstances he may use in his defence, the probable outcome of this failed drug test is a two-year ban.
He turns 26 in a few days, so he is of an age where he could still return and perform at the highest level again. That depends on how well he is supported and mentored in the next couple of years, though both Leeds and Castleford have done their best in the past.
So more importantly it now comes down to the quality of his own decisions.
In short, it's time for the lad to grow up.