Former All Black Royce Willis stuttered from the age of 4.

He recalls he became a withdrawn child, too shy to speak up in class.

"As a young kid, being hassled and all that, I found it really affected my schooling, because I wouldn't ask questions and was hiding all the time. That was until I was about 12 or 13 years old and then the teachers realised I was miles behind. They got me special help.

"Once I'd caught up with everyone else I was OK. Because I'd been withdrawing from conversations I had it in my head that I was dumb and couldn't really do anything. It certainly affected my confidence.

"All the teachers say I was very shy." By his early teens, Willis discovered he could express himself in other ways.

"In my first year at [Tauranga Boys] high school I just had no confidence, but I realised I was good at sport. I started rowing and did well there. I was large and quite athletic and got a lot of confidence from that.

"I think, in a way, sport was my saviour. Through sport I was able to build my confidence and claw my way back.

"That's what I try to encourage in other people who have the same issue. Everyone is good at something and if they can find that unique skill they can build themselves up from that."

A more recent breakthrough came in 2003 when, following 12 games for the All Blacks (1998-2002) and several seasons with Auckland and Waikato and their Super rugby franchises, Willis headed to Japan to play.

"I learnt Japanese over there and that actually helped me. For me, I struggled with words that started with 't' and 'k' and I would always avoid them, but when I started learning Japanese every second word started with a 't' or a 'k'. I wasn't expecting that, but it really helped.

"I still have it now, but it only really comes on when I'm a little bit tired or really nervous ..."

Willis returned to New Zealand two years ago. Now 35, he is about to begin his second year of study for a degree in physiotherapy in Auckland. He says that age has helped, too.

"As a teenager, you are really concerned about your self-image, but as I get older I don't really care as much. My personal strategy would be to stop and have another crack at it, to try breathing control.

"I have had it all the way through. I would go to a speech therapist and I would walk in and talk perfectly. Apparently, as a child, that is common because you go in there and know you're only in there for 10 minutes so you just concentrate really hard and you can pull it off."