Zac Guildford, the former All Blacks winger who had the rugby world at his feet before seeing it disappear in a blizzard of alcohol and drugs, insists he is a reformed man who could do a job at the highest level in English rugby – if somebody just gives him the chance to prove it.
Guildford, who shot to prominence as a teenage protégé before featuring in New Zealand’s historic 2011 World Cup-winning campaign, fell off the rails in his early-to-mid-twenties and looked finished when he failed a drugs test during a stint at Clermont Auvergne in 2015.
The earlier death of Zac’s father, Robecrt, from a heart attack during the 2009 Junior World Cup final in Tokyo left an indelible mark and, after winning the last of his ten All Blacks caps against Ireland in 2012, the former Crusader began an inexorable slide into rugby obscurity.
With him reformed and back in control physically and mentally, another of life’s vagaries intervened this year when Covid-19 ruined a proposed ground-breaking move to the Russian Premier League, where he had been due to link up with Bulava and relaunch his career.
Could a move to England now prove his salvation? Guildford told The Rugby Paper: “Russia would have been an experience and a half but because of Covid that fell through and I’ve been playing club rugby for Napier Tech. I’m 31 but I’ve hit great form at full-back and I still think I’ve got a few very good years left in me.
“I’m keeping my options open but I’m 100 per cent fit and, playing at my best, which I don’t feel far off, I know I could still compete at Premiership level. If a lower league side came along, I’d definitely look at it as a way of proving myself. I still love the game and while I do have a colourful past, other guys have got through it and come back.”
Guildford is referring to Danny Cipriani, 32, Kurtley Beale, 31, and James O’Connor, 30, all of whom are in a similar age bracket and who have had to battle their own demons.
He explained: “I’m held back quite a bit because of decisions I made in my early twenties, but these guys have gone on a bit after getting involved in off-field stuff, so I’d like to do something similar and show people that you can come back and make a success of your life.
“I’ve been messaging Kurtley, who I played with at the Waratahs, and he’s a top bloke. Along with the others, we were in similar boats of being in the public eye growing up and we hit trouble around the same time, but if those three can bounce back, then so can I.
“It just took me a bit longer to mature and realise what was important in life. Growing up in the public spotlight as a teenager and in my early twenties, along with losing my dad, was pretty hard to deal with, so I went through an alcohol phase to try and combat that.
“It didn’t work and it took me quite a while to heal from it all. Life can challenge you pretty hard but I have got strategies in place now to support me and I’m ready to move on. I’ve worked as a teacher’s assistant in Hamilton and am currently assisting with some coaching with a few schools in Hawkes Bay, so I’d be interested in a player-coach role as well.
“I can see the game from both sides now and, being a bit older, you know what’s required mentally and physically from younger guys. While I aspire to play at the highest level and believe I can still do that, I’d certainly like to be able to pass on my knowledge.”
Meanwhile, as he awaits what could be a life-changing move, Guildford believes the success of Super Rugby Aotearoa has put New Zealand in a good place after their World Cup disappointment.
“I think it’s been an awesome standard,” Guildford said. “The games have been high paced, high physically, great skill – it was a brilliant brand of rugby to televise around the world.
“I don’t want to put our Australian counterparts down, but their games have been a lot slower and a bit less effective, so New Zealand has put on a good display of how rugby can, and should be, played.”
Guildford added: “A lot of players have put their hands up for the All Blacks and there seems an endless pool of talent – it’s probably the same in England now where you’ve got lots of new guys coming through all the time.
“Although I would have liked Scott Robertson to have been put in charge because he’s brings something new, Ian Foster must be pleased with what he has at his disposal and I think the All Blacks will flourish.”