In the past five years, 25 professional rugby players (three of them All Blacks) have sought help for drinking or drugs problems. The latest and most visible was Zac Guildford. In a new series (starting today and continuing in the NZ Herald tomorrow and Tuesday), Gregor Paul looks at the level of drinking in New Zealand rugby and what is being done about it. Today - part one: the sad saga of Guildford and how the New Zealand rugby system failed him

The ball hung for an interminable period - nudging close to the roof of Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. Waiting, apparently without anxiety, to collect it and a phalanx of charging Welshmen, was a 20-year-old All Black wing making his debut.

It was one of the defining plays of the 2009 season. Welsh first-five Stephen Jones knew his first act would be to see whether the rookie wearing the famous All Black No 11 jersey was going to be all that his coaching team said he would be.

Amid the throng chasing the ball, one man arose: his arms up, his eyes fixed. The ball was caught and New Zealand's worries were over. Having been embarrassed all year by their lack of skill under the high ball, in Zac Guildford the All Blacks had found the piece they'd been missing.

Composed, accurate and mature, he shone as brightly as many of the greats who had worn the jersey before him. The All Blacks won, Guildford was man of the match and the prodigy was on his way to fulfilling potential many had prophesied would be considerable.


On March 14, 2013, Guildford fronted media in Wellington to admit he was an alcoholic and that he was enormously grateful to have retained his job after yet another off-field transgression. The future destined to be his had, literally, been pissed up against a wall. Once a danger to opposition defences, he was now only a danger to himself.

His journey from Cardiff to a rehabilitation centre in the central North Island was, to put it mildly, eventful. There were episodes of reported and unreported violence; gambling splurges; breaches of team protocol; an ugly late night after a poor test in Brisbane; a Commonwealth Games gold medal and World Cup winners' medal; an incredible day of rampage in Rarotonga that included violence, nudity and arrest; a final warning; a three-game suspension; a commitment to not drink for a year; an unsuccessful return to the booze which resulted in more violence, a third public apology and a self-initiated decision to withdraw from the Crusaders' campaign.

Those with an understanding of alcoholism's progressive nature - its ability to transcend from use, to misuse, to abuse to dependency - can make sense of this self-destruction. The spiral fits a recognised pattern. The experts talk of the four Ls - liver, lover, livelihood and legal - and say that often, it's only when one (or usually more) of those are compromised, that sufferers acknowledge they have a problem.

With his job on the line, Guildford made the breakthrough admission that he was an alcoholic.

That's where the cynics pounce - they say it was only because his job was on the line that he confessed. Which is exactly right. But what they really mean is that they doubt the sincerity of his admission. There will be many who expect Guildford to relapse - not just because the statistical odds are stacked in favour of that but because they believe he's a recidivist idiot rather than someone with an illness.

In the wake of the New Zealand Rugby Union's decision to allow Guildford to return to work, the majority of the public feedback was devoid of empathy and instead incredulous that Guildford had been given what was surely a final, final warning. To many, he's merely the most extreme case of an endemic binge-drinking culture that rugby seems powerless to stop.

The sight of a remorseful player, head down, apologising for his drunken actions with a supportive but stern-looking official by his side has become a familiar routine.

Broadcaster Murray Deaker spoke for a goodly slice of the nation in 2007 when he said New Zealand produced 'boofhead' rugby players. Guildford will be considered by Deakerites to be 'King Boofhead', the NZRU weak for not firing him and complicit in endorsing this forgive-all notion on the grounds that boys-will-be boys.

The difficult part for those who had a role in managing and guiding Guildford is that they do indeed feel they failed him; they question why they didn't do more, whether they should have intervened with professional help earlier.

If Guildford had come to them with cancer, they would have known what to do. But he battled for nearly four years before his illness was diagnosed and everyone, from his manager, to his coaches, to his friends, his family, his employer, they all wonder now if they too were guilty of seeing Guildford as 'King Boofhead' rather than a young man in desperate need of help.

All Black manager Darren Shand had heard a bit about Zac Guildford before the then Hurricanes wing joined the national squad in late 2009.

There were a few close to Guildford who said his drinking would need to be monitored.

"It was more a case of a few people saying to keep an eye on him," says Shand. "But I wasn't concerned any more than I would be about any young player. We back our environment and it's pretty unusual that a young player will come into it and jeopardise the opportunity."

Guildford was exemplary both on and off the field - an instant revelation, even. As Shand would discover, though, Guildford was capable of being both saint and sinner. In camp, he was no problem; out of it, stories filtered back through 2010 and 2011 about unacceptable behaviour. Always it was alcohol at the root of the problem.

One of those incidents occurred in Brisbane a few days after the World Cup squad had been named. Guildford made it but the competition and tension had been fierce.

He started the final Tri Nations test and had a seriously poor game that resulted in him being seen by management at 6am the next day, drunk and still drinking.

When media got wind of the story a few weeks later, Guildford, with Shand at his side, held a press conference to apologise and to assure everyone it was a one-off. It wasn't a one-off, though, as Shand would later discover.

"More and more people were telling me their concerns about his drinking," says Shand. "There was a consistency of behaviour from him that wasn't okay - be it from missing curfews, to breaking protocols. I think, though, what troubled me the most was the culture of secrecy around his drinking and the willingness of him and others to cover it up. I became frustrated that I was being fooled, I spoke up for him publicly and he lied to me ... I didn't like that."

The covering up had multiple negative effects. It prevented anyone from getting a true handle on the extent of the problem and didn't force Guildford into accepting responsibility for his actions. It also delayed the likelihood of Guildford realising that he even had a problem.

"The thing about Zac is that he's an infectiously likeable guy," says his agent Simon Porter. "He's a great kid, smart, self-deprecating and good company. Whenever I caught up with him, we would usually have dinner and he would drink something soft because he's an athlete. So I never saw him drinking. In my job, you hear rumours about people all the time and nine times out of 10, it turns out to be rubbish - so unless you see things for yourself, you tend to not believe them."

It wasn't that Porter or Shand or anyone else with responsibility for managing Guildford was in denial. They knew there was a problem, they just had no idea the depth or the extent.

An indictment on rugby perhaps, but Guildford didn't stand out as being particularly out of control between 2009 through to the World Cup.

There were, among the 140 full-time professionals and double that number again of semi-professionals, significant numbers flirting with alcohol-related trouble.

Jimmy Cowan in 2008 and Sione Lauaki in 2010 faced multiple court cases for drink-induced incidents. Jarrad Hoeata was another in serious trouble after fellow road users physically stopped him from continuing his drunken journey from Hamilton to Taranaki.

The statistics show that at least 25 players since 2008 have sought professional help for alcohol problems.

"We have a lot of players from diverse backgrounds and we know some of them get into trouble," says NZRU head of professional rugby Neil Sorensen.

"We tend to deal with each incident as it happens and you explain to the player 'this is what happens when you drink and this is what happens when you don't'. We are not geared up to get into things much deeper than that, to look at the issues of why."

Guildford was viewed as 'just another' young man struggling to make good decisions around alcohol and patience was wearing thin. The pattern - of drinking, then offending, then being remorseful - was becoming tedious.

Previous repeat offenders such as Cowan had induced similar levels of frustration with their inability to change but he got there. Guildford, having been warned about his behaviour and the inevitable consequences if he didn't change, would surely make the same transition after the World Cup. It was, as everyone thought, a case dependent entirely on Guildford wanting to do it. He'd had all the warnings, knew the dangers and it was all up to him.

Then he went to Rarotonga and left behind a trail of carnage.

Sorensen is in no doubt that Guildford was not helped enough after Rarotonga. His sense of regret and disappointment, that Guildford ended up in a $1000-a-week rehabilitation centre this summer is acute.

"There is no doubt we let Zac down 14 months ago," says Sorensen. "We could have done more. We didn't get the results we wanted from the clinicians after Rarotonga. It was their opinion that we should give Zac another go, that he was fit to carry on, and that we didn't need to put him into a recovery situation.

"I was one of the people that let this young man down because instinctively, despite the reports, I knew we weren't doing enough."

The Rarotonga episode is seen as the point where intervention should have been stronger. Guildford's antics that day are almost too incredible to believe. The gory details don't need retelling, suffice to note that anyone who can't account for large tracts of their time, ends up naked and bleeding in a bar and commits unprovoked acts of violence, is clearly not in control of their drinking. Yet, as Sorensen says, the medical experts to whom Guildford was referred, saw no explicit signs of illness.

Guildford therefore made the decision to stop drinking and convince himself and others that he was reformed. That he ended up making himself unavailable for the Crusaders in February this year after getting drunk and punching someone at a party didn't surprise Sorensen.

It was then the situation took on new layers of complexity. There was an element of guilt and regret that more hadn't been done to help Guildford earlier, yet also concern that leniency would be potentially damaging to the reputation of the game. There was also uncertainty, despite Guildford's proactive seeking of professional help, that he could or would rehabilitate successfully.

"We did have to weigh up a lot of things," says Sorensen. "We have an obligation to the wider organisation and there was the question of reputation damage to consider.

"We had to consider the impact on parents, potential players, current players and sponsors around the issue of someone constantly misbehaving.

"But I think what we can conclude is that a player's welfare will almost certainly always weigh more heavily than the brand considerations.

"And it was important that Zac, who had been in front of me three or four times previously [for drinking offences] was an absolutely different person. He had learned about his drinking, understood it and why he was doing it and all that was backed up by strong medical reports."

Inevitable questions have arisen in the last week about what, if anything, has been learned in the sad case of Guildford.

"You can only manage and understand things within your experience," says Shand. "We [All Black management team] are not trained to assess players clinically or medically at that specialist level."

He says that because now that experience is that bit greater, any player who begins to follow a similar pattern to Guildford will be referred for specialist analysis sooner rather than later.

Now, the assumption won't be made that all those in trouble with alcohol can be fixed by being warned.

"When players present with physical injuries, which is about 99 per cent of the time, we know exactly what to do," says Sorensen. "What we need to do is get better at understanding mental illness."