A collective sigh was heard in Crusader-land last Thursday, when Zac Guildford was officially reinstated to the franchise. After an off field incident in January, Zac voluntarily stood down from the team in order to seek help for alcohol issues.
While those who support the red and blacks (including yours truly) may have felt a sense of relief, a lot of people were also of the ‘NZRU, what ARE you thinking, giving this kid yet another chance, after he’s let you down time after time’ persuasion. My Dad (a staunch Highlanders man, born and bred in Otago) was part of this group, going as far as to tell me, “If he apologises again… I hope his head explodes”.
Zac’s (very pretty) head was in no danger of exploding however. The very first question asked of him, during his 17 minute press conference was “Zac, are you an alcoholic?”, a question to which he simply and honestly replied “Yes,”. He added that he knew people’s patience was getting thin, and there wasn’t even the slightest hint of an apology given. Instead Zac said “I have a great acceptance of who I am” – which appeared to be his new mantra, as several times during the press conference, he mentioned the fact he now has a better understanding of himself, as well as a greater acceptance of who he is as a person. As an alcoholic.
What I got from his press conference (well, the second time I watched it and managed to concentrate on what he was saying, rather than how spectacularly good he is looking like the first time), is that the past 60 days for him have been full of self reflection and soul searching. It seems that for the first time since he came onto the rugby scene in 2007, Zac is concentrating solely on himself. After leaving Christchurch, Zac checked in for an intensive 28 day treatment for alcohol addiction, and that, combined with the support he has obviously received over the past two months, Zac seems to be a changed man.
The Zac who was speaking at the press conference was a far more mature, in control Zac than we have seen in his past post-misconduct-hearing press conferences. Rather than talking about how he had let his team, coaches, family, friends and country down, Zac was accountable for his own actions. After stating that his actions were his and his alone, he said “I don’t think I need sympathy, I’ve made mistakes and now I’m looking forward,”. Zac went on to say “the road I’ve been on for the last 60 days has been a happy and pleasant one,” and that he is “in a good headspace now, the happiest [he’s] been in a long time actually”. All of this was said with such conviction and strength that it was easy to see he meant it, and wasn’t saying it to keep the powers that be happy.
Zac also alluded a lot to the fact he has a great support network this time round, consisting not only of the professionals who are helping him deal with being an alcoholic, but also his friends, family and team mates. One must imagine that one of his biggest supporters comes in the shape of his partner (and successful jockey), Samantha Spratt. Sam stood up for her man in the media, an act which immediately put me on ‘team Sam’ (which is hard considering the mere sight of the man kills me… in a good way). Sam spoke out about Zac being misrepresented and misunderstood by the media, saying “he is such a great guy and it has been publicised that he is a monster,”, a fact which was also repeated by others who spoke out for Zac. Sam then went on to say that the media overlook all the positives about Zac, such as how great he is with kids – including her 7 year old son.
I must agree with Sam here. At a Crusaders public training session in 2012, Zac took time out to talk to my (at the time) 5 year old daughter (Gaby), and was then more than happy to get a photo taken with her and her little friend. Zac never once showed signs of impatience, and you could see that he wasn’t doing it to look good, he was doing it because it’s the type of guy he is. This was the same training where Israel Dagg led my daughter stray, convincing her to go onto the field during a media conference – then stood laughing and egging her on. In December, at a charity cricket event, a friend and I were witness to Zac hanging out and playing cricket with a 5 year old cancer sufferer – Lachie, who he has developed a special bond with over the last year. The bond is so special and strong that Lachie’s parents also spoke to the media in defense of Zac, while most were bagging him and calling for his contract to be torn up.
It’s easy to forget that while Zac is a professional rugby player, he IS also just a 24 year year old man, who enjoys doing what other 24 year olds do. It is a fact that a lot of people Zac’s age enjoy binge drinking – something which is undeniably a major problem in New Zealand. ‘The old Zac’ (as Zac referred to who he was prior to the events which unfolded in January) did what thousands of Kiwi men and women do every weekend, but his public profile meant that any indescretion brought him into the spotlight. Zac said himself, with regard to drinking, that it was “part of who I was growing up, we all did it,”, and while it is certainly no excuse (and Zac wasn’t using the point as an excuse), it is certainly something a lot of Kiwis can relate to. I know that I can. I know that my sister can. I know that my friends can.
My hope is that as Zac continues on his road to recovery, he will become an inspiration and role model to other young Kiwis, who will hopefully realise that it’s okay to ask for help, or to admit that you have a problem. It’s one thing for young people to be TOLD that it’s okay to ask for help, that it’s okay to admit you have a problem, and to be told there is a way through it, but being told that by someone they can relate to, and even admire, may potentially make a difference. Of course Zac Guildford can’t singlehandedly fix New Zealand’s binge drinking culture, but if his speaking out can help steer one young (or not so young) person down a better, more positive track – surely that would be an accomplishment to be proud of.
It seems that Zac being given the go ahead to return to the Crusaders gave the men in red and black the morale boost they needed. Just two days after it was made official that Zac would be returning, the team went on to rack up their first win of the season, whipping the Bulls 6 tries to 1, in a 41-19 drubbing at home on Saturday night. Both (captain) Kieran Read and (coach) Todd Blackadder made mention of the fact that Zac had inspired the team when addressing them upon his return, and that with Zac back in the fold it felt as if the Crusaders were a family again. Toddy also went on to say there is no trust that needs to be earnt back – the team are all behind Zac and they are willing to do whatever it takes to help him on his journey.
Zac spoke of rugby and of the Crusaders with such passion, that I have a feeling we are going to be seeing not only a new and improved ‘Zac Guildford, the person’, but also a new and improved ‘Zac Guildford, the rugby player’. If that is the case, it is something that could pay dividends for the Crusaders… and create massive headaches for their opponents. Perhaps this new, improved, responsible, accountable (and don’t forget spectacularly good looking!) Zac Guildford can do his part to bring the Super XV trophy back home to Crusader-land, for the first time since 2008.
For those of you who read about the McBonbon scale last week, I have to say it’s a waste of time giving Zac a McBonbon rating, because he would blitz the field… so to keep it fair on the rest of the Kiwi players, I’m leaving him officially unranked.