Zac Guildford: Living my All Black dream
Zac Guildford had dreamed about wearing the All Blacks jersey since he could walk and pass around a rugby ball, a dream he realised last November when he made his test debut against Wales at the Millennium Stadium.
His selection in the squad for the end of year tour to Europe came as no surprise, given his try-scoring exploits with the Baby Blacks in the IRB Junior World Championship and then for Hawke's Bay in the Air New Zealand Cup.
However, the 20-year-old wing was determined not to get carried away with all the hype and avoided watching the squad announcement on the Rugby Channel, staying in bed trying to keep it off his mind. His mobile quickly gave the game away, though.
"I knew I had played good rugby that year but I still didn't really want to bring myself round to thinking that I was actually going to make the All Blacks," Guildford told Total Rugby Radio.
"I knew if I did that it would be a huge let down. I was actually still in bed and I was trying to keep it off my mind, then my phone started going crazy. I got a whole help of texts from my mates and family, so that was the first thing I heard of the selection.
"It was a huge surprise and I guess a huge relief because I had put in so much effort that year and I wanted to do it for my Dad. It was just a huge honour and a privilege to be named in that team."
Using tragedy as motivation
The first stop on Guildford's maiden All Black tour was Tokyo, the Japanese capital where only four months earlier he had scored two tries as New Zealand's Under 20s beat England 44-28 in the Junior World Championship final.
The title was his third age grade success in as many years, having been part of the sides that won the IRB Under 19 World Championship in Belfast in 2007 and the inaugural Junior World Championship a year later.
However, what should have been a time of celebration for the young wing after an age grade career few, if any, can rival, turned into tragedy when his father Robert died within minutes of the final whistle at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium.
Losing his father was a devastating blow for Guildford, but he managed to channel his grief and use it as a motivation to realise a dream the two of them had long shared, involving the iconic black jersey.
"Obviously with the passing of my dad probably five minutes after the final whistle it sort of put a bit of a damper on winning the tournament, but in saying that I am glad that we did win because he got to see me win an Under 20 title again and to have him there was obviously really special throughout the tournament.
"Something like that happening to you certainly does put life into perspective. It makes you realise what things are important to you and it gives you a lot of motivation in how you just play the game and the way you go about things."
Mixture of emotions
Guildford had been an unused replacement when the All Blacks beat Australia in Tokyo before heading to Europe, but a week later he was named in the starting line up to face Wales and was somewhat relaxed about the biggest day in his career.
"Jeez it went quick," recalled Guildford. "I was quite relaxed building up to it actually, I just wanted to go out there and have a good performance on the field. I knew I just had to concentrate on my role because I had a whole help of good players around me.
"But it went in a flash, it seemed like I got out there and the next minute the game had finished. It was an awesome experience, I didn't get a lot of the ball in space, but I got involved through defensive work.
"It [pulling on the jersey] was all I'd dreamed of since I could walk. Since I could kick and pass around a rugby ball all I've always wanted was to play for the All Blacks. That has always been my dream and I never actually thought I'd be good enough to put on that jersey.
"It was a mixture of emotions and I just feel really proud."
The only member of his three Baby Blacks' squads to have been capped by the All Blacks at present, Guildford also started against England at Twickenham a fortnight later and is yet to taste defeat in his two test matches.
World Cup dream
Guildford has been named in the All Blacks squad for this month's tests against the visiting Ireland and Wales - along with Aaron Cruden, his Baby Blacks captain in 2009 - and understandably would love to be involved in a certain event in New Zealand in 2011.
"If I make the 2011 World Cup then that will be an absolute dream come true so that's the target," admitted Guildford, who wasn't born when New Zealand won their only Rugby World Cup to date back in 1987.
"There's huge excitement, I don't think the boys are getting too hyped up just yet because we know we've got our tasks to do before the World Cup and that's winning a Tri Nations again and completing an end of year tour, but I guess leading into summer next year back home the boys are going to be raring to go and looking to hit peak for the World Cup.
The only player with two Junior World Championship winners' medals to his name, Guildford was the leading try scorer with eight in 2009, taking his tally to 10 across the two tournaments and has nothing but fond memories of his Baby Blacks career.
"I look back on the JWC as a brilliant experience. It is a stepping stone to greater things and the guys you come through the grades with are really good fellas and you are all the same age so you all have a pretty special bond," enthused Guildford.
Something to cherish
"I played in three of them, so it is an awesome experience and something that I was lucky to experience three times when most people only get to experience it once.
"You learn a lot of lessons. It was sort of my first introduction to what you could call professional rugby, so you learn a lot about what it is like becoming a professional rugby player and what sort of attitude you have to have, not just in terms of on the field but also off the field and the way you conduct yourself, your recovery, your pre-hab, your rehab, your work in the gym, it is just a starting block for future things.
Guildford, who Graham Henry has said reminds him of All Black legend John Kirwan, therefore has a simple piece of advice for the Baby Blacks, who arrived in Argentina on Sunday with a target of preserving New Zealand's unbeaten record in the Junior World Championship.
"It's hard but I'd just say do your best. You know you only get one shot at it so every time you put that jersey on you have to leave a bit of yourself out there, you know blood, sweat, tears whatever it takes.
"Leave it out there for the cause and that's really five gruelling matches and it's something that you'll cherish for the rest of your life."
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