Zac Guildford: New Zealand wing trying to resurrect career

Zac Guilford during the 2011 World Cup
"People forget that we are human." Guildford (second left) felt the pressure of being an All Back when personal tragedy struck
5 live's Rugby Union Weekly
Listen to the full interview with Zac Guildford, plus Ugo Monye and Chris Jones dissect the British and Irish Lions defeat to the Blues in Auckland. Download here

As a youngster, Zac Guildford had the rugby world at his feet.

An All Black at the age of 20, by 2011 he was a World Cup winner, scoring four tries against Canada in the pool stages as New Zealand won the Webb Ellis trophy for the first time in almost two decades.

Now 28, the wing should be part of the All Blacks squad preparing to take on the British and Irish Lions.

Instead Guildford is playing amateur club rugby in Waikato, and working a full-time job at a sports manufacturing company in Hamilton.

"It all happened so fast," Guildford told the BBC's Rugby Union Weekly podcast, as he steps away from his desk at the Kukri warehouse.

"I made my debut at the Millennium Stadium in 2009 in front of 70 odd thousand people. I was only 20 back then and it was an awesome experience. I was driving around in free cars, flash cars, and now I am driving around in work vans."

While on the pitch Guildford was making waves with the All Blacks, off the field things were starting to unravel. His father died suddenly by the pitch at the 2009 Junior World Championship, a tragedy that had a profound - if delayed - effect.

"When my Dad died, we had to bring him back to New Zealand from Japan and have the funeral," he remembers.

"Within 10 days I was back at training with Hawke's Bay, and two or three weeks later I was back playing Mitre 10 Cup. My way was just to get straight back into rugby, but I never really grieved.

"I used alcohol as a sticking plaster. It made me forget about the sad emotions I was experiencing and the memories I had with my Dad. I wish I had dealt with it better, but I was only 20 or 21 and was trying to find the right way to recover."

Zac Guilford Clermont Auvergne
In action for Clermont Auvergne in 2014

Guildford's battles with alcohol have been a constant throughout his adult life and career.

"I think it probably started at the age of 22," he said. "I had a life everyone thought was awesome, and it was, getting lots of money to play rugby, but at times when you are getting lots of money you sometimes don't do the right things with it, and that's what I was doing.

"My personal life was getting in the way of my rugby career. From about the age of 23 to 26 I really didn't have myself under control."

Guildford's tale is a salutary one, a reminder of the fickleness of professional sport and the vulnerabilities of sportspeople, regardless of their wealth and reputation.

In a land where the All Blacks are superheroes, showing any signs of weakness isn't easy.

"People forget that we are human," he continued. "Guys who play for the All Blacks are just normal people who play rugby. Outside of rugby we all have normal feelings and emotions and have to deal with the same problems everyone else has to deal with.

"Then to go out and try and perform in front of thousands of people each weekend can sometimes be tough, and the pressure can get the better of you. At times it did for me."

After signing with the Crusaders from the Hurricanes in 2010, Guildford was let go in 2014 and moved to Clermont Auvergne in France.

Zac Guildford Twitter

Last year he was signed - and then released - by the Waratahs in Sydney amid more off-the-field issues. He took a break from rugby, and thought he would never play again.

But now Guildford is starting from the bottom, balancing his club rugby in Waikato while also working a 9-5 job.

"Last year I got back from the Waratahs and had a bit of a time off," he said.

"I didn't know if I wanted to play rugby again, but I slowly got back into it through some heartlands rugby, and Sevens, and I have been training with Waikato and things are ticking along pretty well.

"It's been a good six months to a year when I've been able to breathe and experience life outside rugby.

"I have a pretty basic role [at work]. The sales time will send through an order and we will put it together. But my week is pretty busy. I leave home at seven in the morning, go to training, have breakfast, come to work, and don't get home until seven or eight.

"It keeps me pretty busy and out of trouble."

Still supremely talented, Guildford recently played his way to the fringes of the New Zealand Sevens side, and all being well, will soon feature for Waikato in the Mitre 10 Cup - the level below Super Rugby - as he continues his drive back to the top.

"If it comes around again I would definitely appreciate it a lot more than last time, and realise we are pretty lucky.

"I have been training with Waikato and things are ticking along pretty well. I still love it and I can't keep away from the game. It's good to be around good people and people who love playing footy. It reminds me of why I do it.

"There are always challenges that life presents, but I'm really enjoying it, and I think I am ready for that next step into professional rugby again. I have to earn that, but hopefully it will come around pretty soon."

Get all the latest rugby union news by adding alerts in the BBC Sport app.

Top Stories