Crusader Zac Guildford's year of redemption
Zac Guildford may not be able to remember his night of shame in Rarotonga last November, but he sure can't forget it now. He lives with a reminder of the fallout every day as he goes about rebuilding a reputation not so much sullied, as shattered.
The young Rugby World Cup-winning All Black, still only 23, doesn't want to relive the events of that chaotic evening, that much is clear. He's moved on, and he's desperate for the rest of us to do the same. If only it were that easy.
But to his credit the Crusaders wing understands he's got some bridges to build, with his public, his employers, his team-mates and – most importantly – with himself.
So, amid the reluctance, there's acknowledgement that these are demons he must face. "It's all good," he says at one point when the inquisitor stubbornly keeps the subject in a territory he's tip-toeing through like a minefield.
The fact is New Zealand's eyes remain firmly fixed on this young man as he seeks to save his career and reputation. We understand that his boozy antics were almost certainly a form of delayed grieving over the death of his father. For that alone, the less cold-hearted have cut him some slack.
But we also get that enough is enough. Being an All Black isn't just a job, it's a privilege. Guildford had some major missteps last year – Rarotonga the final straw in a series of transgressions – and he's got ground to win back with us all in 2012.
The good news is that so far Guildford would appear to be some way down that path. He's got his support systems in place, his disciplines entrenched and all indications are that fabulous high-workrate game of his is close to humming again.
In many ways the rugby field has been a haven for Guildford. Out on that stretch of sward he can leave his worries behind. Out there he doesn't feel shame or sorrow. Just a sense of belonging.
"I was just happy to get back on the field after some pretty dark times," says Guildford ahead of today's clash against the Queensland Reds. "It's awesome being in this Crusaders environment. It's benefiting me being round a good bunch of lads and trying to play some footy I can be proud of."
As is the way with these things, it's one step at a time for Guildford. He's getting a tonne of help in an environment that's as nurturing as you get in rugby. Self-help guru Gilbert Enoka has taken him under his wing and the Crusaders have put as much support around him as they dare.
"His performances on the field are starting to mirror what he's doing off the field," says Crusaders assistant coach Daryl Gibson. "He's really getting his life in order. He was at a particular low last year around what occurred in Rarotonga and his indiscretions with the All Blacks. He has had a great deal of help from people around him. The key thing is he's the one making sure he's doing everything he can, firstly to get his life back in order, but also to take care of his rugby."
What happened that night in Rarotonga when Guildford stumbled drunkenly around in various states of undress, assaulting, insulting and pretty much making a nuisance of himself was, in hindsight, an inevitable low point.
He'd clearly lost his way in the All Blacks, with rumours swirling of various indiscretions long before he was eventually made to do that walk of shame during the world cup when his behavioural issues were first made public.
You don't need to be Freud to understand the links between Guildford's behavioural disintegration and a delayed grieving process over the death of his father, Robert, who had a heart attack while watching his son's team win the world under-20 championship in Tokyo in 2009.
Guildford barely paused to process the loss of the guiding figure in his life, ploughing ahead with his rugby. He made the All Blacks' northern tour at the end of that same year, dedicating the achievement to the memory of his father (whose name he has inscribed on his chest). After the Rarotonga fiasco, Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder reflected that his player had finally hit "rock bottom" and could now acknowledge his need for help.
"There's a real issue here that he's obviously suppressed," said Blackadder. "There's a lot of anger and emotion behind it and it takes an expert to help him. It's really hard to help someone if they don't think they've got a problem."
Guildford is understandably reluctant to relive last year or delve too intimately into solutions he's sought, but giving up the grog was among his immediate tasks.
"Just establishing that off-field stuff was crucial, and to be back down here [in Christchurch] and playing some rugby has been awesome," he says. "It's good to put the stuff behind me and move on and I'm looking forward to hopefully winning our first title for a while this year."
Putting it "behind him" is a phrase Guildford uses repeatedly, as if to assure himself. He says he's "pretty happy" to be back doing what he loves. "Geez, I did stuff up, I had to address it and then look to put things right. I think I'm doing that."
Of course, he's got to prove himself all over again. "I guess it is about redemption for me and proving I can play good rugby. I didn't have too good a game against Australia [in Brisbane] last year so I'd love to fix that if I get a chance."
The fact that Blackadder has had his back through all of this has not been lost on Guildford either. "We've got an awesome coaching staff here and they really look after their players. They've been good to me, and that's why I'll be here for the rest of my time playing."
Whether Steve Hansen remains equally supportive remains to be seen. The new All Blacks coach met with Guildford recently, which indicates the miscreant is at least a chance to add to his eight caps in a highly competitive position.
"They just wanted me to work on my agility – footwork in the contact," says Guildford. "But they don't really say too much. You don't really know where you stand till the team is named."
Gibson says Guildford's workrate can't be questioned. "The All Blacks just want to see him beat people and use his feet. It's pretty competitive out on the wings – to force your way in amongst that sort of company he's going to have to be pretty good."
But Guildford knows he'll be helped if his Crusaders can get on a roll. He talks about the grind-out Stormers win as being "the start of our season" and feels like, with three straight wins, they have some momentum now. "Our backs are starting to score tries, and we're getting a bit of confidence."
He's pumped to play well this afternoon, coming off what he reckoned was a sub-par personal effort against the Waratahs. "It's back to the drawing board this week," he says with some relish.
New beginnings are what it's all about for Guildford this year.
Sunday Star Times