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Zac Guildford's last chance for redemption

Tuesday 18 Oct 2016 8:54 p.m.

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It's early Saturday night in Masterton, and former All Blacks star Zac Guildford is starring for the local heartland side, Wairapapa Bush.

"It's the best I've ever felt to be honest," he says.

"It's probably not the highest rugby I've played in my career, but I'm very grateful to be here and still playing rugby."

A couple of thousand people have turned out for some Zac magic. Among them, the province's most famous player.

"I played against his grandfather on the Guildford side, we played together. You know he came from here. We welcome him back, he's obviously done a good job for the team," says Sir Brian Lochore.

"Look he's a fit young man and provided he wants to play rugby, lots of years left in him, it's up to him."

Rewind five years - almost to the day - and Mr Guildford was living the rugby dream. He was young, rich, famous, idolised, and part of the Rugby World Cup winning All Blacks team. Life was good.

Then he went to Rarotonga. It was a month after the Rugby World Cup.  He got blind drunk and naked, and he punched two strangers in a bar.

He spent a night in the police cells, and he still doesn't remember much.

It was the first real sign of Mr Guildford's self-destructive demons and addictions. He was 22.

"I will always battle with addiction," he says.

"Drugs, gambling drinking - that's everything I have sort of battled with. Obviously in the media and public it's only been about the drinking but there has been a lot of stuff gone behind the scene that people don't know and stuff and other things I had to deal with."

On top of that he was dealing with the sudden death of the man he loved most, his father.

Soon, his addictions began to rule his life, both personally and professionally.

In 2014 he left New Zealand for France. A French club had offered him 25,000 euros a month.

However, he lasted only half the contract.

Then he had a gig playing for the New South Wales Waratahs.

That gig too only lasted a few months, and he abruptly left the club in June.

"I was definitely doing not a lot of good things with my life to be honest," he says.

"I thought I was in a good headspace but I was probably lying to myself and a lot of other people went over there and was doing things I shouldn't have been doing, I don't think I need to elaborate too much more."

He arrived home with nothing, and he had nothing to go to. He was in a dark place.

"I was pretty lost, and just had to refocus. It wasn't until I had a change of mindset and I decided enough's enough. I'm sick of living this stink life and just start a new beginning," he says.

So he moved to his grandparent's farm in Featherston, near where he grew up - away from temptations - and back to basics. Fresh air, and a fresh start.

His late dad's old rugby side Wairarapa Bush then agreed to take him on, for $100 a game.

"We've done nothing really special around here, we just told him look come and play rugby," says says Wairarapa CEO Tony Hargood.

"Trainings on Tuesday and Thursday and games on Saturday, and be yourself and be part of the team and community. And he's done that. I think he's reaping the rewards from that."

Knowing it's his last chance, Mr Guildford's attended every training and played every game. There's been no trouble, no drama, just some good old fashioned rugby.

Early Sunday morning, Mr Guildford sits down with his family for brunch at the farm.

He's relaxed and smiling, his head is clear. At 27, he's is finally feeling happy, and in control.

"It's a blessing for me to be back playing because quite frankly three months ago if I looked in the mirror I wasn't a happy person I didn't think I would play rugby again," he says.

"But then again if someone said to me in 2011 you'd be playing for Wairarapa Bush I would say you are crazy."

And as for being an All Black again?

"If anyone has an opportunity for me," he laughs.

"I do feel like my best rugby is still ahead of me."


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