Editorial: Guildford case puts focus on addiction

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Player's misdemeanours so public that they could not be ignored and swept under the carpet

Guildford's story was central to this week's series of articles on how rugby is grappling with alcohol issues. Photo / Geoff Sloan
Guildford's story was central to this week's series of articles on how rugby is grappling with alcohol issues. Photo / Geoff Sloan

For more than a year, New Zealanders have had a front-seat view of Zac Guildford's struggle with liquor. An alcohol-fuelled rampage in Rarotonga was followed by a pledge to stop drinking, only for him subsequently to get drunk and allegedly punch a partygoer in Christchurch.

Finally, this month, with his job with the Crusaders on the line, he admitted to a media conference that he was an alcoholic. If All Blacks are role models, there could hardly have been a greater contradiction of what this should entail.

Yet it could be that the public pillorying of Guildford will, in its own way, have served that very purpose. His misdemeanours were so outrageous and so public that they could not be swept under the carpet. The New Zealand Rugby Union had little choice but to make Guildford explain himself to the public. He has had to detail what he is doing to remedy his addiction, including a spell in a rehabilitation centre, and how grateful he is to still have his job.

In doing so, he may just have got through to at least some of this country's young rugby players, conveying to them that they must be careful with liquor.

Guildford's story was central to this week's series of articles on how rugby is grappling with alcohol issues. To many, he has become a symbol of a drinking culture that remains endemic within the game. Guildford, they assume, is merely the most extreme product, rather than an isolated example. But it is apparent his case has occasioned much soul-searching at the rugby union, and that other players, at least at the professional level, will benefit from his experience by being quickly referred to specialist help if they show similar traits.

Alcohol has always been a natural fit with sport. A cold beer will always be associated with relaxation after physical exertion. Alcohol sponsorship of sport is simply an acknowledgment of that reality. Rugby's transition into a professional game has meant, however, that there is no place any more for heavy drinking. Responsible consumption has become essential for elite players, if only because they must recover as efficiently as possible for their next game.

Guildford has not been alone in struggling in this new environment. Jimmy Cowan, Sione Lauaki and Jarrad Hoeata are other All Blacks who have got into trouble because of their drinking. But the overall picture is of players showing the benefit of being educated by the rugby union, the players' association and senior players about the consequences of alcohol abuse and the expectations of them. In that regard, they are far more fortunate than their predecessors in the game's amateur days.

Recovery from alcoholism is rarely smooth. There may yet be further incidents involving Guildford. Even going into a bar can be problematic, as the assault on cricketer Jesse Ryder illustrates.

Inevitably, other young players will also drink too heavily, with all the consequences that spring from today's intense level of scrutiny. Increasingly, however, these are becoming isolated incidents. Compare that with the heavy drinking of the All Blacks of old, which, it is widely assumed, must have influenced the habits of young people. If so, today's culture of restraint should have a far more positive effect. So, too, should the very public recording of Zac Guildford's woes.

- NZ Herald

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