Guildford resigned to no more All Blacks haka
Twenty-four seems young to be reconciled to life as an "ex-All Black" but Zac Guildford concedes he has probably performed his last haka.
But the Crusaders' wing swears his best rugby seasons are still ahead and he is determined to win a first Super Rugby title and to savour success in the European Cup and French Top 14 division with his new club, Clermont Auvergne.
Guildford said yesterday he had made his decision to secure his future overseas after accepting an All Blacks recall was not on the imminent horizon.
"I've come to grips with the fact that I'm probably not going to play for the All Blacks again. It's pretty sad. I played 10 games and I had a wonderful time doing it."
Reality set in when "a mate said to me the other day: you're probably never going to do the haka again".
Guildford, who played his last test in 2012, will leave for France after the Super Rugby season ends to take up a three-year contract.
He has made a pragmatic decision, with Julian Savea, Ben Smith, Cory Jane, Charles Piutau and Frank Halai preferred above him last year by the All Black selectors.
Guildford said he started "having a look around" for overseas opportunities last year and "now just seemed like the right time to go".
"If you look at the All Blacks team there's quite a few wingers lined up and, for me, personally, I'm in quite a good space now to move on and look at some new challenges.
"I haven't got too many goals of making the All Blacks. I'm just trying to play the best I can for the Crusaders and hopefully win a title for the first time."
The lure of an Olympic Games sevens gold medal in Rio in 2016 was not sufficient incentive to stay in New Zealand.
"No, not really.
"I haven't had too much experience in sevens. I played [on New Zealand's 2010 gold medal team] at the Commonwealth Games and that's about it, really. That didn't come into the decision too much."
But moving to Clermont was "a massive opportunity" to play in one of the best competitions in the world, the Heineken (European) Cup and the Top 14, "alongside some world-class players and players I've played with in the All Blacks like Mike Delany and Benson Stanley". Moving mid-career was "a bit of a gamble but it's one I'm willing to take", Guildford said.
"I've got to weigh up my future and going over there pays the bills a bit better as well. But [it's] also new life experiences and a fresh start ... New Zealand can be a bit of a fish bowl and although I've had good support over the years from the public, the Crusaders, Hawke's Bay and the New Zealand Rugby Union, I just feel it's a good time to move on." He said a "fresh start", more than the money, was his major motivation.
"I'm going to be going over there by myself. It's a wee bit daunting but I'm sure I'll meet a new bunch of people over there, there's plenty of Kiwis at the club."
Former All Black Jono Gibbes is Clermont's new assistant coach, and Delany and Stanley will be familiar faces in the changing-rooms.
"I've spoken to Mullsy [Delany] and from what I understand he loves it over there. The club's family-orientated, a bit like the Crusaders, so I couldn't have picked a better one to go to."
Guildford, who turns 25 next month, still feels he has plenty of improving to do.
"You see a lot of people go overseas when they're in their late 20s or 30s and their career's coming to an end. But I feel like I've still got my best rugby in front of me and that's something I'm looking forward to giving to Clermont."
Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder "could almost understand" why Guildford chose to go overseas.
"At the moment, he hasn't been in the All Black frame; maybe it's a fresh start that will provide some stimulus and give him the opportunity in a fresh environment and, if he wants to, to come back and give more [to New Zealand rugby] in the future. He's a young man, and I think he's got a lot to offer, not only as [a rugby player] but as a role model. I think he's going to make a major contribution to people in his life," Blackadder said.
Guildford has scored 22 tries in 61 matches for the Crusaders since his debut in 2010. He will "miss the crowd" in Christchurch, "the camaraderie we have in the team, and the way that everyone has each other's backs. It's a real family environment here, and I'll definitely miss that, but from what I hear it's pretty much the same there in France."
Guildford will replace ex-All Blacks wing Sitiveni Sivivatu, who has left Clermont for a three-year deal with Top 14 champions Castres.
But France can wait: Guildford has more pressing rugby business in Christchurch. He had a gut-busting Crusaders team run up Mt Pleasant yesterday afternoon but French lessons will start in the next couple of weeks.
BOOZE SLIP-UPS, BUT 'PRETTY CONFIDENT'
Guildford admits he has had "a couple of slip-ups" along his sobriety path but is committed to living "a better lifestyle".
Blackadder agrees and says the 24-year-old wing will "always be a Crusader" and have the franchise's support for life.
Guildford publicly admitted he was an alcoholic last year after his contract was reinstated by the New Zealand Rugby Union following some behaviour breaches.
He insisted yesterday he had some "great support structures" in New Zealand and would "build a few more" when he moves to France in August to play for Clermont Auvergne.
But Guildford, who turns 25 next month, insisted he was "feeling pretty confident in myself".
"I'm not going to lie, I haven't been perfect. There's been a few little slip-ups on the way, but I'm feeling much healthier in myself and more confident. I'm willing to move on and live a better lifestyle."
He told The Press he planned to "keep up my counselling and my meetings and stuff like that".
"I know the life that I lived before and I don't want to return to that."
Guildford is "more aware of my surroundings and what I can and can't do".
"I'm still a bit of a big kid and a bit of a clown, but that's just the person I am. But I think I've come along with a year or two behind me, and I'm looking forward to moving on."
Blackadder said Guildford had had his issues but had "a very special place in my heart".
The Crusaders had seen a "transformation" in Guildford over the last couple of years and Blackadder believed he had the talent to come back to New Zealand rugby after his French fling.
"The world's his oyster.
"Like in anything, if you've got addictions, there will always be times when you regress, which is very normal," Blackadder said.
"There have been a few issues since the last major one, but not as much as what there has been in the past. Zac is maturing, he's making better decisions. I think it's very normal. There's no cure for it, it's something he will have to keep working on for the rest of his life."
Guildford said he had "pretty close family back in Hawke's Bay" and great friends and it was a tough decision to move overseas.
- © Fairfax NZ News
Is Richie McCaw now the greatest All Black of all time?