KIERAN SHANNON: Pope’s rugby pilgrimage

When you think of him you instantly think of him smiling, his head and body tilted back in his chair, either sharing a joke with his old partner George Hook or maybe even having one at Hook’s expense.

It shouldn’t surprise us so that he’s smiling on the cover of his new book. That’s how we picture him, that’s how we perceive ‘Popey’, the genial Kiwi who your mother — that doesn’t even like rugby — seems to like.

But inside the book and inside the man it’s another story, as the title in small print on the front suggests. ‘If You Really Knew Me’. Open it up to see how he’s opened up and you and your mother will probably like him all the more but to do so is to dispel almost everything you assumed about ‘Popey’ and to discover the tormented and generous soul that is Brent Pope.

Anyone who followed him on RTÉ’s recent Instrumental programme would have got some hint of just how worked up he can get about things. In that instance it was to learn the clarinet from scratch and two months later play it with an orchestra in front of a thousand people in the National Concert Hall.

You can imagine so how soul searching and head wrecking it must have been for him to commit to writing his own life story, to reveal his real inner self.

Although it was typical of him to go outside his comfort zone, it invariably meant him going to places that were hugely discomforting.

“For the last few years Irish Sports Publishing had asked me to consider writing my story, saying, ‘Brent, we think your life would make a brilliant book.’ I didn’t see it. I’m not a Brian O’Driscoll, I’m not a Bull Hayes. But when I started to think back, I realised I have lived a varied life.

“It’s the story about a kid growing up in rural New Zealand who had huge issues with self-confidence and self-esteem, has his sporting dream snatched away from him and then goes halfway across the world to live a new life in the land of his ancestors. I’ve opened art galleries, written children’s books, started a new career in TV, so there was definitely a story that was about much more than rugby. But telling it was extremely difficult.

“The hardest part without a doubt was sharing parts of my personality that I wouldn’t have shared with anyone in my life. At times it took me back to places I had wanted to forget. I had boxed them away but this took me back to them. I’ve had panic attacks and anxiety problems which I’ve carted around for over 30 years. But the reason I decided to write the book was because I wanted other people who have similar difficulties with anxiety and self-confidence to realise that they are not alone. It’s okay to get help and it’s even better to give yourself a break.

“I don’t care how much this book sells as long as that message gets out. But as I say in the book, while it’s affected my whole life, it’s just a thread in my life. It doesn’t define me. I’d like to think people will read it and say ‘Here was a guy who had some issues but heck, he was resilient.’”

Rugby was his refuge. On the rugby field he could just lose himself, express himself.

“Rugby gave me my break from the worry, about worries. Other things outside it worried me — relationships and so on. Bur rugby, I’d just go and do it — bang. I loved rugby. I loved it because of the aggressive side of it. I loved taking on people in the same position and getting the better of them. It’s a wonderful feeling to beat a man or run over the top of someone or to tackle someone. I’d be playing against (All Black legends) Buck Shelford and Zinzan Brook and be able to say ‘Hold on, you’re not getting the better off me in this match. This is my match. I’m taking this from you.’ That was my attitude.

“But funny enough I couldn’t transport that sporting discipline into the rest of my life. Team-mates have said that they’ve never seen someone who could switch their concentration levels on and off so well, that I could be clowning around one minute in the dressing room and then, bang, be totally focused the next out on the field. Because I was the joker. But that was a mask.”

That was the thing. Even when it came to rugby the self-doubt was inescapable.

“I wouldn’t give myself a break. After a game I’d always look at what I did wrong rather than what I did right. I wouldn’t give myself confidence. Coming from a small town and coming from the family I did, as loving as they were, the attitude was ‘don’t get ahead of yourself now, don’t you be cocky.’ It was very Irish that way. And when I looked back on my career through writing this book I realised, ‘You know what, if I had believed in myself more and not beaten myself up so much, I could have been as good as Zinzan Brook.’”

Brook. No one had heard of him before the 1987 World Cup and no one would have heard of him then either if it wasn’t for what happened to Brent. In the lead-up to that inaugural World Cup, Pope was in the shape and form of his life. He trained like a triathlete, traversing the steep hills around Dunedin, swimming in the Moana pool, and as he puts it himself, running up and down the steps of a local university ‘like a Rocky Balboa’. He was one of the fittest rugby players in the country and he was playing like one of the best too, impressing in a series of trial matches. Then in the very last minute in the very last of those trial games when he was just about to be announced as the man-of-the-match, he bald-headedly went for a try. He ended up smashing his arm off the goalposts which in turn smashed his World Cup dream.

Exit Brent, enter Brook, probably the best All Black you ever heard of that replaced the best there never was.

Recalling that episode resurrected and stirred all kinds of emotion in Pope.

Even reading the testimonies of former teammates scattered throughout the book about how he was good enough to be an All Black was more upsetting than uplifting.

“I will take that to the grave. But I appreciate now it was absolutely out of my control. Have I made peace with that part of my life? Yes, because it’s only sporting. I’ve been able to say ‘Well, look, if I’d played for the All Blacks I wouldn’t have come to Ireland, I wouldn’t be living my life here.’ But have I made peace with myself? Not really, not yet.”

At least he’s saying ‘Yet’. At least he now has a word that captures his condition — dysthymia. In easily the most candid and probably best chapter by an Irish sports figure in an Irish sports book this year, Pope discusses this ‘half-empty heart’ syndrome. It’s not so much a personality disorder as a mood disorder. Even when you achieve something you don’t feel fulfilled. You almost don’t feel worthy of having achieved it.

It affected him in everything. Deep down he’d feel he wasn’t worthy of an All Black shirt and he wonders sometimes did he subconsciously over-train and self-sabotage himself so that he’d somehow break down on the verge of winning that jersey. George Hook observed that when Pope coached St Mary’s to the AIL title, his first comment to reporters was that it might not necessarily be a good thing; it would increase the pressure to win it again the following year. Even then he couldn’t seem to enjoy the moment or achievement.

It drove him away from women that he loved and women who loved him, all because he couldn’t understand how they could love him. He knows some people have wondered if he’s gay, just like his only brother Mark is. In the book he explains that he is not. Sometimes a man can reach 50 and not have been married because he feels he’s not worthy of being married or loved.

“I’ve pushed wonderful women away. Me being single is not necessarily a choice for me. It’s just the way I find myself in my life. It’s because of my own self worth, that I have pushed people away. I would convince myself that I wasn’t worthy of this woman even though she would tell me that I was a loving, kind, caring person and partner. I couldn’t make sense of that. I would indulge in paralysis by analysis before I’d give things a chance.

“But you know what, I’m damned if I’m going to let that beat me. And over the last few years I’ve worked hard to try and change that and give myself a pat on the back.”

There’s a George Strait song he’s come to love. About a father forsaking a business flight and appointment to take in his son’s baseball game. The chorus goes:

You just might miss the point

to win the race

Life’s not the breaths you take

But the moments that take your breath away

That resonated with Pope to his core.

“I want to milk as much as I can out of every day. I want to see the good in myself and the good in others and to say ‘Hey, you’re okay. You are what you are, warts and all. Give yourself a break.’ I know this is going to sound clichéd, but I’m going to have to like myself. I’m going to have to give myself a pat on the back; sometimes say, ‘Well done, Popey, you did well.’”

It wasn’t how he was conditioned to think. His parents were loving people and even now he can vividly recall as a toddler being held in his parents’ arms, wrapped in a blanket keeping him warm, in the sun room of their house. But always, that anxiety seemed to be there. He was born a month premature which was highly unusual and traumatic for those times and required a C-section. His father was a kind man but an anxious man. Even in rugby he was programmed to think of what he was doing wrong rather than right.

“I had been coached in a bullying way, that you don’t make a mistake, that you don’t do this, you don’t do that. But I realised when I started coaching Clontarf that the best way to get the best out of players is to realise there is little to be gained from criticising them. If you’re going to criticise, do it in a constructive way. ‘If we can get onto that pass, we’re going to be a brilliant player, we’re going to be some team.’ I was probably told by other people what I couldn’t do rather than what I could do and so in my own mind I’d do that too.”

It extended to all areas in life. “Looking back at my teenage years, in the lead-up to exams, I’d never look at it rationally. I’d never say ‘Well, what’s the worst that can happen? If I fail I can always do it again next year.’ But I’d think, ‘You’re not even going to finish school. You’re going to have some menial job for the rest of your life. You’re going to fail, fail, fail.’ I was the kind of person that if I got 50 compliments, I’d zone in on the negative. I’d still be that way.”

But he’s trying to change. That’s probably why he has so much time for George Hook.

Probably the reason we hear him say “Well, George is right” so often is because the rest of the time George is inevitably wrong, or at least OTT. Pope is aware that he’s there to provide some balance. But being balanced extends to any assessment of Hook. Some of the Corkman’s attacks on players and coaches have seemed overly-personal at times and as Pope observes and smiles, “I’d say George has nearly had every coach sacked and every player dropped at some stage.” But while he sometimes has to remind Hook that every Irish international or provincial player he knows of has never wanted to do anything less than his best, he often reminds Hook’s critics of where Hook himself has come from.

“If I hear somebody giving out about George, I tell them, ‘You know what, at 60 years of age that man was bankrupt, living in the States, away from his family and almost suicidal.’ Look at how he has turned his life around and given himself a chance. Whether you like it or not, he’s one of the most recognisable faces and voices in this country, so I say ‘Good for him.’

“Can he be prickly? Yes, he can, but my parents have had people in New Zealand say to them that they were in Ireland and those guys have the best rugby show in the world.”

Wait a second, that seemed like a compliment. It still doesn’t come easy to him. Even at his book launch attended by 200 people, Hook observed that throughout the night Pope still had his head on his chin. But he’s lifting that chin and that head and himself, bit by bit.

“I had to catch myself and say to myself, ‘Put your head up, be proud that you’ve done something.’ Am I proud of it now? I’m trying to get proud, put it like that. But you know what I’m proud of? I’m proud of the fact that a guy came down from St John of Gods for a book signing having watched my interview on The Late Late Show. He said, ‘Brent, what it meant to people on that ward to hear you talk about how we all have issues.’

The message I want for people to realise is that even with our difficulties we can still achieve a lot.

“I want to now enjoy them. I want to enjoy life. For the first time I want to enjoy it. I want to enjoy what I’ve done.”


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