Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Rugby: Zac ban works for 7s star

Kurt Baker. Photo / NZPA
Kurt Baker. Photo / NZPA

New Zealand sevens representative Kurt Baker stands to benefit most from the decision to suspend Zac Guildford from the Crusaders for the Super Rugby season.

No decisions have been made but sevens star Baker, who excelled for Taranaki in the ITM Cup, looms as a logical solution to their outside back cover.

The 25-year-old spent the past two seasons at the Highlanders but is part of the Crusaders wider training squad this season.

Baker has generally been preferred at fullback but he would likely don an 11 or 14 jersey with All Black Israel Dagg the Crusaders incumbent at 15.

Regardless of whether Baker is called up, the onus goes on the squad's other wing and fullback contenders - Johnny McNicholl, Adam Whitelock and Tom Marshall - to exceed expectations.

Guildford's boozy indiscretion will change the way the team operates under new back coaches Tabai Matson and Aaron Mauger. The 23-year-old was a big part of their plans. No doubt Matson and Mauger had visions of his extra pace combining intuitively with Dagg or surging off pop passes from Dan Carter.

Aggravating the problem is former Crusaders wing Sean Maitland's departure to Scotland.

McNicholl's speed off the mark, fend and sidestep will be a welcome asset. The 22-year-old is yet to debut in Super Rugby but led the ITM Cup try-scoring table last year with 10 to help Canterbury to a fifth consecutive title. Whitelock's reliability can't be ignored with his formidable fitness and defence although he lacks Guildford's explosive pace. Marshall - and possibly Tom Taylor - could be fullback options if Dagg returns to the wing.

The New Zealand Rugby Union released a statement on the Guildford decision yesterday. It said Guildford "has withdrawn indefinitely from the Crusaders ... to undertake an intensive treatment programme to address his on-going personal issues".

Neither the NZRU, the Crusaders, the New Zealand Rugby Players Association nor Guildford's manager Simon Porter have been available for further comment, presumably while they address the wider employment issue of what impact the incident has on Guildford's NZRU contract.

The NZRU indicated as much in its quote from chief executive Steve Tew: "As people may appreciate, this is an employment matter and we must ensure that the process both respects his right to a fair hearing and our legal obligations as an employer."

The Crusaders attributed a quote to coach Todd Blackadder in their press release: "We are all supporting Zac and see this as a positive step forward in overcoming his illness. This is ultimately about his well-being so it is important for him to take the time to fully address it. We are unclear on what it means for the Crusaders at this time."

The NZRU banned Guildford for four matches over his alcohol-fuelled rampage in Rarotonga after the 2011 World Cup. Three of those matches were pre-season.

It is not known if Guildford might look at an overseas assignment now. He was not required on the All Black tour to Europe last year and can fairly be said to be behind Cory Jane, Hosea Gear, Julian Savea, a fit Richard Kahui and perhaps even Ben Smith on the wing. He would also face challenges from the likes of former All Black Rene Ranger and the Hurricanes' Andre Taylor - another good example of a winger/fullback package.

There is no suggestion that is what Guildford might now do but he may soon see some profit in a rugby market not tainted by his indiscretions and where there are fewer obstacles to his earning power.

- Herald on Sunday

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