Zac Guildford is no stranger to representing New Zealand at Age Grade level, having been part of the Baby Blacks’ squads who have walked away with the last two titles – at Under 19 level in Belfast in 2007 and last year’s inaugural IRB Junior World Championship in Wales.
The Hurricanes wing is the only member of that class of 2008 who was eligible to travel to Japan for this month’s IRB TOSHIBA Junior World Championship and jokes that he is relishing the opportunity to finally play against “guys my own age”.
New Zealand inevitably are among the favourites to lift the trophy in Tokyo on 21 June, but while Guildford would personally love to make it three Age Grade world titles in a row, he insists the defending champions are approaching the Championship from a different perspective.
“It was a pretty good year last year and we had some talented individuals and we gelled together as a team pretty well,” explained Guildford. “We are looking for the same again this year, it’s obviously different personnel, but we are looking for the same result.
“Obviously it is going to be a mighty challenge because there are a good few teams out there but we are looking forward to the challenge.
“We won the tournament last year so we are going to be favourites [this year], but we don’t see ourselves as favourites, we have a whole new team apart from the coaching staff and me really, that’s about it.
New Zealand: Underdogs?
“It is a completely different challenge and we will approach it like we are underdogs.”
Guildford only joined up with the Under 20 squad the week before they flew to Japan, the 20-year-old having been a regular for the Hurricanes in this year’s Super 14 and been a part of their squad beaten in the semi finals by the Waikato Chiefs last month.
He hasn’t, as some may expect, spoken to his teammates really about his involvement and successes in the New Zealand Under 19 and Under 20 teams, but does see the potential for the class of 2009 to reach the same heights as last year’s team in Wales.
“I haven’t told them too much, but I think they all know what they are in for. It’s the best players from all around the world that are under 20 years old. All the boys are knowledgeable at what the task is ahead of them and by all accounts we are looking forward to it.
“It is pretty hard to compare the two sides. Last year we had some very talented individuals and what I have seen from this year’s group it applies the same. I guess the only challenge for us is to create that strong environment and gelling together as a group and I think if we can do that we can turn into a star studded team.”
Learning from All Black stars
A star studded team is something that Guildford is no stranger too, having been surrounded by the likes of All Blacks Rodney So’oialo, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith at the Hurricanes and Guildford is quick to point out the benefits for him.
“Having the Super 14 experience under my belt makes me more aware of what is going on around me,” explained Guildford. “You have that little bit more experience and you are used to the pace of the game and know what is coming from the start of the game.
“Being a young guy you have the older guys chipping in your ear, like Ma’a, Conrad Smith and Rodney, and the knowledge they have got extends from here to wherever. They have so much knowledge and we as young guys need to learn to feed off them and be around to learn as much as we can.”
No doubt this includes handling the pressure that goes with representing New Zealand at any level.
“It means everything, when you pull it on [the jersey] you get butterflies, and it’s what you have always dreamed of and you see the silver fern on your chest, but you can’t really explain it. You know you are going out there to play for your country, I guess it is like going to war.
“You have high expectations and you try block them out and just play footy but you know in the back of your head what your country is expecting of you.
Managing the expectations
“We are here to play footy but we need to forget about all the hype about New Zealand and the expectations. We just need to play to the best of our ability and take one game at a time. If we can do that well, here’s hoping we can go all the way again.”
New Zealand have already cleared the first hurdle with a 75-0 defeat of Junior World Championship newcomers Uruguay in Nagoya last Friday – a match in which Guildford scored a hat-trick – but the wing knows that from now on things only get harder, starting with Ireland on Tuesday.
“We had Ireland and Argentina in our pool last year, and they were tough opposition. I think Ireland are going to be even tougher this year because they won the Six Nations. I haven’t seen any footage of them but from what I have heard of them they are a pretty formidable side this year.
So who will be New Zealand’s biggest challengers to lifting the trophy in 2009?
“Australia, you look at their team and they have a star studded team. They have 10 Super 14 players so they are going to be jam packed with talent. If they can gel together they will be a pretty formidable side also. Then there is South Africa, England, France – all the big rugby nations.”