France-bound Zac Guildford counting blessings

HEYDAY: Zac Guildford, left, is congratulated by Colin Slade after scoring for the All Blacks in their 2011 World Cup win over Canada.
HEYDAY: Zac Guildford, left, is congratulated by Colin Slade after scoring for the All Blacks in their 2011 World Cup win over Canada.

Zac Guildford signed a three-year deal with French club Clermont this week. He tells Fairfax Media about opening a new chapter and moving on from his past. 

For the past six years Zac Guildford has grown up in the public eye.

Understandably, then, France presents an escape of sorts.

At the impressionable age of 18, Guildford's natural gifts - raw pace and finishing ability - saw him anointed the youngest-ever Super Rugby player with the Hurricanes.

Since then, he's experienced more peaks and pitfalls than most 24-year-olds from the humble Hawke's Bay.

Few can appreciate how devastating it must have been when Guildford's father, Robert, died in the stands while his son scored two tries in the New Zealand under-20's World Cup win in Tokyo in 2009. That sort of tragedy sticks deep in the soul.

Indeed, Guildford's well-documented alcohol-related demons may stem from attempting to cope with such a profound loss.

From the outside, being a professional rugby player seems a dream, a glamorous existence. While money is notably a perk, the reality can be deceiving. Even more so when you've admitted to being an alcoholic. That's not something anyone lets you forget.

In eight months' time, after completing his final season with his adopted Crusaders' family, Guildford will embark on what he describes as a fresh start; a new life, a new chapter.

Sure he's taking a risk, travelling alone to France having just split from his girlfriend and leaving his support behind. But it will also mean he can learn more about himself than ever before, without being constantly reminded of his mistakes.

Escaping the New Zealand fishbowl offers a precious commodity - freedom. All Guildford has ever known is the 15-man code.

"It is a bit like that," the 10-test former All Black tells Sunday News. "There's been a lot holding me back here recently and I haven't helped myself, but hopefully I can make a positive change. I'll be heading over by myself so it will give me a good chance to grow, experience a new culture and find myself a bit more.

"I've had a lot of support but there is a bit of past history tying me down and not letting me move on with my life.

"I'm not going to go over there and run amok and be a 24-year-old tourist. I'm going there to play good footy. But there will be a chance to do a bit of travel and catch up with some good mates. That's another factor, being able to see the world.

"I know it's not going to be easy, being away from friends and family. I've got a great support system here and going out into the wilderness by myself is kind of daunting, but it gives me a chance to stand on my own two feet.

"It will probably take a while to settle in. I will probably get homesick at times, but I'm ready to embrace it." Guildford, who wants to play fullback at Clermont, has been to the dark side. He doesn't want to resurface there.

He's been granted more than one chance and knows how quickly this life can be taken away. Wine country and lucrative salaries are sure to present temptations but now, more than ever, he seems comfortable with his future.

"I feel it's under control," he said of his drinking. "There's been once or twice where I have had a few drinks but I don't see that being a big part of my future. I'm happy within myself to continue along that sober track. I don't want to return to how I was because it means a bit of trouble. It's like playing with fire. It can be kind of destructive.

"This time last year I made some really significant changes. I've got to admit I haven't been perfect. There's been the odd slip-up along the way.

"I never thought I'd be in this situation where I get to play rugby and earn great money while doing it. I'm quite fortunate. In the past I've taken that for granted and almost lost that opportunity so I want to make the most of it now."

Guildford's All Black dream may be over. This new chapter, though, could be just as rewarding.

Sunday News