"So what do you do?"

"Oh, I play rugby," said the 10-test former All Black, who spent much of his career with his face plastered across newspapers.

It was only upon returning to the office that I was told by my co-workers I had interviewed Zac Guildford, who has battled alcoholism and mental health issues during a fall from the high echelons of New Zealand rugby.

When my colleagues told me about Mr Guildford's past, they were shaking their heads and laughing, amused and bemused at my lack of Kiwi celebrity knowledge.

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"You know he walked into a bar naked in Rarotonga."

"He assaulted two people in a bar while he was at it."

"How do you not know who he is?"

Mr Guildford's problem with binge drinking didn't sound all that different to Kiwi blokes I know, albeit significantly more violent; the big difference was he had a limelight shone on him, illuminating every crack and crevice.

Sitting next to him on a bench seat at a cafe he didn't duck my naive questions, he was open to genuine conversation.

"A lot of rugby players don't talk.

"They think that because we get paid a lot of money and play rugby life is perfect, but I guess beneath it all we have problems and the more we can talk about it the better we can deal with them."

Talking was what Mr Guildford was doing a lot more of these days: talking about his personal problems, including alcoholism which led to several violent, ugly incidents and being cut from the All Blacks and Super Rugby.

I know when I was a kid it was very hard to speak to my dad on a personal level. It would have been weird to sit down and talk to my dad about my feelings.

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Mr Guildford said he had no one to talk to when he was juggling playing professional sport and deteriorating mental health.

"Life isn't easy sometimes, and it's good to have someone there to talk to, who listens and doesn't judge.

"We portray rugby players as people who don't have problems and don't talk about it.

"It's totally the other way around. All Blacks do cry. They do have feelings."

After cutting things short with the Sydney-based Waratahs last year and returning home, Mr Guildford said he was "going back to basics".

Work. Family. Trying to surround himself with good people, not "dickheads".

New Zealand's Zac Guildford, scores in the Rugby World Cup Pool match against Canada at the Wellington Regional Stadium in 2011. Photo/File
New Zealand's Zac Guildford, scores in the Rugby World Cup Pool match against Canada at the Wellington Regional Stadium in 2011. Photo/File

Looking at the others sitting at the cafe and he was on the right track.

Tommy Kapai Wilson, of social service Te Tuinga Whanau, was adjacent.

Mike King, who I was there to interview, a mental health champion who traipses back and forth across the country giving talks to kids and adults about mental health, was to his right.

Mr King has been by Mr Guildford's side behind the scenes for the past four years.

There were several times in Mr Guildford's recent past where it seemed as though he had gotten a handle on his alcoholism only to be in the papers again for a drunken scene.

But like his mentor Mr King said, you only fail if you don't keep trying.

Having been on the other side of it and seen how difficult life can be maybe it's good for kids to relate to someone who has been through it.

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"He stuck by me. It hasn't been a smooth ride, but he's always been someone to talk to. It's hugely valuable to have someone who listens and doesn't judge."

Mr King has battled with alcoholism and drug addiction in a public way and turned things around for himself; making it easy to relate to Mr Guildford.

Mr King was in Tauranga visiting Papamoa College and Tauranga Boys' College this week giving talks on mental health and youth suicide.

Mr Guildford sat in on his talk at Tauranga Boys' College and said he was at a stage where he wanted to learn from Mr King and start helping at-risk youth.

"Having been on the other side of it and seen how difficult life can be, maybe it's good for kids to relate to someone who has been through it."

He wanted to show young people that it was okay to talk.

"I know when I was a kid it was very hard to speak to my dad on a personal level. It would have been weird to sit down and talk to my dad about my feelings but showing kids now that it's okay could change the image, which would be awesome."

Where to get help

The Mental Health Foundation's free resource and information service (09 623 4812) will refer callers to some of the helplines below:

Lifeline - 0800 543 354

Depression Helpline (8am to midnight) - 0800 111 757

Healthline - 0800 611 116

Samaritans - 0800 726 666 (for callers from the Lower North Island, Christchurch and West Coast) or 0800 211 211/(04) 473 9739 (for callers from all other regions)

Suicide Crisis Helpline (aimed at those in distress, or those who are concerned about the wellbeing of someone else) - 0508 828 865

Youthline - 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz