The last time Zac Guildford played a game of rugby it was three months ago as a professional for the Waratahs against the Chiefs in the world’s toughest competition.
Tomorrow (Saturday) the 10-test All Black will be lacing up his boots for Wairarapa-Bush in the amateur Heartland Championship.
While Zac is the first to admit his rugby career is not tracking the path he had intended, he is pretty happy where he has landed, for now.
“A big part of me being here is to get better, and I suppose I’m using rugby to do that,” he says.
It’s also something of a home coming for the 27-year old who was born in Greytown before moving to Hawke’s Bay when he was ten.
A professional rugby player at 18, All Black at 20, Zac’s meteoric rise in the national game is the sort of stuff many Kiwi schoolboys dream of. But it can come at price. Fame, money and expectation can be a lot for a young person to bear. Throw in alcohol and gambling and things can quickly go off the rails.
A classy winger Zac made his All Black debut in 2009 against Wales at the Millennium Stadium, in Cardiff, and looked to be set for a promising career. But by 2012 NZRU had grown frustrated with his off-field antics tearing-up his contract. He continued on at the Crusaders before again falling foul, eventually signing with Clermont Auvergne in the French Top 14 Competition. After his stint with the NSW Waratahs this year you could be forgiven thinking his rugby career is just about over.
Far from it. Facing up to his “demons”, surrounding himself with the right people and keeping fit, Zac says he is in a “pretty good space right not”.
“I’m not going to say, like I have in the past, that everything is fine because I do struggle every now and again with a bit of depression and anxiety. But I think I do have a few things in place, a few people to talk to now who can help me when I do get to into those dark places.”
Among those people are his grandparents Frank and June Burt who he is living with on their farm south of Featherston.
“Since getting back from Australia I’ve become friends with a new group of people, people who invest a lot more time in themselves and can help me because I can drag myself off path and I don’t need any encouragement.”
Above all, Zac says he now feels that he has a different mindset, a greater desire to get better, which is his primary reason for returning to Wairarapa.
“I’m definitely not coming down here to earn a whole lot of money. I’m here to get myself in a good frame of mind, play some good rugby and give a bit back.”
He hopes a successful 10-12 weeks here will put him in good stead for something else down the track.
Fit and raring to go Zac is excited about pulling on the Wairarapa-Bush jersey, as his late dad Robert and Uncle Daren did some 20 years ago.
While recognised as a wing Zac says he is keen to mix up his playing position over the coming weeks.
“I feel that for Wairarapa-Bush I’ll probably give my best at full-back or centre, but I’ll play where everI’m needed, apart from in the forwards – it’s too scary.”
He is not the first All Black to return to his roots and ply his trade at Heartland level, nor will he be the last. But unlike those former ABs that have gone before him Zac is hoping the experience will to re-ignite his career so he can yet again realise his enormous rugby playing talents.
We are behind you all the way Zac!