Sunday 1 February 2015

Brent battles his half-empty heart

As a witty TV pundit and successful author, Brent Pope seems the epitome of urbanity and achievement. But he's also a model of honesty and tells Ciara Dwyer how he feels he once let down his brother and that his personality is prone to discontent – something that has affected his love life. Now, however, he's winning the battle to accentuate the positive

As I sit down with Brent Pope in the Merrion Hotel, a man walks past. He can't help himself: "What a match on Saturday," he says, referring to Leinster being beaten by Clermont. They both nod knowingly. "I really enjoy your work," says the passing stranger. "Thanks very much," says Brent with a broad smile. Later on, I will understand how the acceptance of that compliment is a huge step forward. It wasn't always so. But Brent is not one to be gloomy, so he keeps it light and bright before eventually telling me how he has worked on himself. When I meet him, I address him as "Bent Pipe," the incorrect name that came across the loudspeaker as he made his way out on a rugby pitch when he was a fledgling player. He laughs at it. It's clear that he can take a joke.

Everybody knows Brent Pope. He's that cheerful, easygoing RTE rugby pundit from New Zealand. He knows what he's talking about because he has seen the pitch from all angles. Although he was never professional, he used to play as a forward for Otago in New Zealand, back in the days when dirty playing – giving and getting punches in the head – was commonplace. It was a time when he and his team-mates were advised that it would be good to eat fish and chips before a match. (The chips were the carbohydrates and the fish, the protein.)

He looks back in laughter at their bizarre innocence, knowing that nothing of the sort would be tolerated in this sophisticated era. One time he was even treated by a vet, as his team didn't have a doctor. The man was in a white coat and he had seemed to have some medical knowledge. It was a different world and yet, like all rugby players, he relished the rough and tumble of rolling mauls and scrums. An unfortunate elbow injury in 1987 at the All Blacks trials meant that Brent never got to play for his dream team. But he kept on trucking.

As he said at the time, "Just as well I still have my day job as a bum model for Brad Pitt."

That seems typical of Brent. Although he is serious about many things in life, almost everything can be turned into a joke. It can be a great survival mechanism.

Twenty years ago, he came to Ireland, the country of his grandparents, because he was invited to play for St Mary's. The offer came at a time when he was ready for a change, so he jumped at the chance. The idea was that he was on a temporary visit – three months – but he liked life here so much that he eventually decided to stay.

He played with St Mary's and later coached Clontarf. Then along came RTE, asking him to have a go on the panel with the late great Mick Doyle, Tony Ward and Ciaran Fitzgerald. He has been on our screens ever since.

When Popey (as he is affectionately known) settles down in the studio alongside George Hook and Conor O'Shea, with Tom McGurk at the helm, he is the calm and collected Buddha, while often George fires off fusillades, and fumes. It's obvious that he enjoys his job and, as a result, people warm to him, even those who don't know him.

There is something very likeable about him. When I met him in the Merrion Hotel on a crisp winter morning, he was dressed immaculately in a well-cut white shirt, a light tweed jacket and elegant jeans. He had his helmet on the ground beside him. Although he often drives from his home in Blackrock – where he lives alone – he scoots around town on a Vespa. When he had headed out that morning it had been raining, but he wouldn't wear rain gear, certainly not the trousers. He is too snazzy a dresser. He tells me that he should probably have a big helmet with a visor to cover his face, but it wouldn't match the image of the Vespa. This may sound vain but there is something endearing about his honesty.

That is one of the main qualities you will discover about Brent when you read his autobiography – If You Really Knew Me – which was written with Kevin MacDermot.

It tells his life story in a frank way and he is to be commended for telling stories against himself. It takes guts to talk about your failings. For example, he looks back in shame as he recalls how his only sibling, his older brother Mark, must have endured many taunts from others about his homosexuality.

Much to his regret, Brent didn't stand up for his brother when he heard other friends jeering him. He is now very close to Mark, who works as a psychotherapist.

The book chronicles Brent's rich and varied life, but it's not like he turned 50 – which he did – and decided he wanted to blow his trumpet about his life. Rather, it took a lot of talk from Irish Sports Publishing to convince him that his story was worth telling. We learn of his idyllic childhood in Ashburton, a small rural farming township 50 miles south of Christchurch, and of how he was always outdoors playing sports, running, cycling, and swimming. He and his pals roamed about, having adventures, floating down rivers in tyres. But it was when he started playing rugby he knew that it was the sport for him. He was good at it, but highly competitive too.

He may have had bouts when he was lacking in self-confidence and he analysed everything to the extent that he would feel paralysed, but then he would always say yes to rugby offers. It was a world that taught him a lot.

It was through the sport that he learned about setting goals and having the confidence to achieve them. Team camaraderie was a big thing, too. Sometimes he would learn lessons in reverse. As a new player on a team, he would notice that you would have to bide your time until you were finally accepted.

As a result of experiencing this, Brent vowed he would always welcome newcomers to the team. "I always try to be mannerly and nice," he says.

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