Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby's battle with the booze

Rene Ranger. Photo / APN
Rene Ranger. Photo / APN

Drinking is the evil rugby can't flush - 25 high-level players have sought professional help for alcohol and drug issues in the past five years.

The players have come from the top Super Rugby and ITM Cup competitions and the New Zealand Rugby Union has opened up about the depth of the problems in the wake of the Zac Guildford saga.

Three players asked for help while they were All Blacks.

No names are available as counselling is confidential.

But within that timeframe, Jimmy Cowan and Guildford have had well-known brushes with alcohol, Sione Lauaki faced a courtroom because of incidents involving drink and Jarrad Hoeata gained media attention when other road users prevented him continuing a car journey from Hamilton to Taranaki. Former All Black Jerome Kaino and referee Steve Walsh have also voluntarily completed alcohol counselling in the past five years.

NZRU head of professional rugby Neil Sorenson this week admitted not enough was done to help Guildford after his highly publicised fall from grace in Rarotonga last year.

The union and the Rugby Players' Association are clients of Wellington human resource firm Instep, which runs an employee assistance programme.

Since 2008, 81 union and the players' association employees have been through Instep's programme, and 31 per cent of those sought help with alcohol and/or drug issues.

An Instep report says the number of rugby players seeking assistance is higher than that from other corporate sectors.

The numbers show how hard it is to improve drinking habits in the professional game.

Both organisations have invested heavily in welfare programmes to change attitudes towards drinking that, even 10 years ago, was considered endemic and institutionalised.

Long-serving coaches, players, managers and administrators say the amount and frequency of alcohol consumption has been enormously reduced in the past five years but the figures show significant numbers of players are still struggling with drink.

"We are contracting a lot of young men who are often being paid three or four times the minimum wage," says Sorensen.

"I think we are morally obliged to educate them and support them about alcohol.

"Whether they like it or not, they are in the public eye and they are under pressure. Just like Zac, we know there are a lot of other young players with alcohol issues."

Factors cited for the high rate of help being sought include the intensity of the high performance culture, constant public scrutiny, extreme expectations that come with being an All Black and high incomes combined with a lot of free time.

Says All Black mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka: "A lot of (drinking) is related to the high pressure environment."

All Black hooker Dane Coles, former All Black Rene Ranger and former Super Rugby players Taniela Moa and Lucky Mulipola are others known to have completed enforced alcohol counselling at the the request of the New Zealand Rugby Union after misconduct hearings.

Read more: How the system failed Guildford

In a new series starting today and continuing in the NZ Herald tomorrow and Tuesday, Gregor Paul looks at drinking in New Zealand rugby and what's being done about it. Today - Part 1: The sad saga of Zac Guildford and how the NZ rugby system failed him.

- Herald on Sunday

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