Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue: Rugby's changed approach to addiction

Zac Guildford. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Zac Guildford. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Zac Guildford has probably turned a corner. The national rugby union certainly has.

It was a weekend of happy returns, for Crusaders' wing Guildford and Cronulla league coach Shane Flanagan. The star of the show, however, was the New Zealand Rugby Union for a new, enlightened approach to addiction.

These are impressive times for rugby, led by Sir John Kirwan's courageous public stand about depression which also broke machismo taboos. Kirwan's stand may even have helped lay the ground for the NZRU's reversal on Guildford.

If we handed out awards, the plastic kettle would be off to NZRU professional rugby boss Neil Sorensen, for comments in a Herald on Sunday feature.

The NZRU, which once put young alcoholics on display to make ridiculous pledges of sobriety, now realises this situation is beyond its control. Guildford is an addict, as are between 5 and 10 per cent of the population.

Guildford's subheading is alcoholism, although as he concedes, even bars of chocolate are in mortal danger when he's about. But to get to the nitty-gritty, when Zac picks up a drink, he just can't stop. This is, in most cases, heavily due to genetics.

Sorensen and All Black manager Darren Shand spoke wisely and compassionately in the HoS piece. The NZRU feels that previously they let Guildford down, a generous approach which simply reflects that addiction is, by and large, a disease that faces widespread ignorance.

Sorensen was quoted thus: "When players present with physical injuries ... we know exactly what to do. What we need to do is get better at understanding mental illness."

Realising that it doesn't have all the answers, which is a very good answer, the NZRU has called the "experts" in. This is ground breaking stuff, with rugby prepared to play its part in societal change. And it's no mean feat, because the NZRU does face tricky decisions in an image-conscious society, and with the uneducated baying for people like Guildford's blood.

And while addiction isn't a moral problem, the resulting antisocial behaviour can still be fairly viewed that way. What a dilemma.

Guildford has also shown bottle, so to speak. It must be hard for a young man, suffering an illness and one associated with depression and insecurities, to handle this in public. In the process, he has revealed he has an illness that carries a heavy stigma.

The fact is, he may slip. Few addicts get into recovery, much fewer last long.

That's the nature of the beast, but at least Guildford has an understanding employer and an understanding of himself. So it was a joy to see him back for the Crusaders - he is not the monster some want him to see him as.

It is just as encouraging that Flanagan is back in charge of the Sharks after being stood down by the club's board. Flanagan is an early victim in the drugs-in-sport witch-hunt encircling Australian sport. Two others are fellow Cronulla employees who were sacked and plan to sue the club's former chairman, Damian Irvine, for defamation.

Irvine went public at the weekend begging for mercy and is also a victim perhaps, having acted hastily in a cauldron of fear whipped up by adrenaline-charged crime/drug busters and their acolytes. Justice has not been served, which means any clean-up of sport which may be necessary has not been served either.

This is a watershed opportunity, though, in which an amnesty plus a truth and reconciliation-type commission could put Australasian sport on a healthier and exciting path. But enlightenment won't go that far, unfortunately.

- NZ Herald

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Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue writes about a wide range of sports for the New Zealand Herald. He has covered numerous sporting events for the Herald including Rugby World Cups and the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

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