'I found my gear floating in the urinal'
In the second series of exclusive extracts from his book ‘If You Really Knew Me’, Brent Pope reveals the difficulty in making the breakthrough at club level
The obvious step after university rugby in the Canterbury area was progressing to the full Canterbury provincial side.
While it was an ambition of mine, I wasn't overly confident about ever being invited to join a team that was full of incredibly talented individuals and All Blacks, and managed by the legendary ex-All Black, and teak-tough trainer, Alex 'Grizz' Wyllie.
But late one night, after a Lincoln game, I got a phone call. It was short and sweet. "Pope?" a voice barked out. "Yes."
"Wyllie here. Be at Canterbury training, 6.30 tomorrow."
The phone was slammed down.
Was that really Grizz? It sounded like him but I was certain it had to be a wind-up. Still, I couldn't afford to take the chance of missing out on training with the top province in New Zealand. So, the next day I sheepishly arrived an hour early at the Canterbury training ground.
As the Canterbury lads filed in, I didn't really know any of them, and had little to say for myself. They were all established Canterbury players, many were All Blacks, and I was just some young nobody from university.
Nobody really welcomed me or told me where to dress or what to do. In fact, nobody really looked in my direction. I grew paranoid. Was this, as I'd suspected all along, another student prank? I began to fret that all the other players were wondering who the strange kid was. I waited for someone to come up and enquire: "Are you lost?"
In a bid to do something – anything – rather than just sit around, I quickly got changed and pulled on my boots. I didn't want to force anyone to have to speak to me so I headed out and started doing laps.
Lap after lap after lap, on my own.
But I'd miscalculated. I did so many bloody laps before training that, by the time it started, I was already tired. There followed one of the hardest training sessions I've ever endured. At one point, I saw Wyllie arrive but I'm not sure he knew I was there. He certainly didn't take any notice of the new boy he'd wanted to attend training, he had other more important things to deal with.
But, even if I hadn't already been painfully aware of my place on their rugby ladder, I was soon given the message.
I'd been so keen to vacate the dressing-room earlier in the evening, I'd made the mistake of leaving my rugby kit, boots, socks and bag in a well-known All Black hard-man's dressing-room space. When I got back to the changing-room, there was no sign of my gear.
After a brief search I found some of it ... floating in the urinal where he'd tossed it. He'd clearly found my stuff in his sacred spot and so my fresh kit went into the bog.
It was all part of the rugby hierarchy that was prevalent back then. There was a pecking order which was based on earning respect, and that was achieved by knowing to shut up, keep your head down and speak only when you were spoken to.
And that was an attitude that permeated right through all teams, from the players right up to the coach and management. Grizz Wyllie would never have stood for a newly arrived 'wannabe' making out he was better than he was.
So I learned, pretty quickly, how the system worked – for good or for bad. At times, I bought into the system and had no problem ribbing new players – but not when you could see that, having just arrived alone and knowing no one, they were struggling to be accepted. I admired Grizz Wyllie and his Canterbury players: many of them were my idols, rugby men I wanted to emulate. But I didn't want to emulate the hard-man, 'earn your place, son' kind of attitude that ran right through rugby at that time.
After my experiences, I decided that, if I ever got to be a senior player in any team, I would go out of my way to welcome new players on board, even if they were directly competing for my position.
Otago's later successes were built, in no small part, on their policy of developing the club and the team as a big, warm and welcoming family. During my very short and inconspicuous stint at Grizz's Canterbury team, I didn't even make it beyond the fringes. There was no shame in that: after all, he ran the best provincial side in the country.
No matter how hotly my ambition to play top-flight rugby burned, at Canterbury I was at the end of a queue in which every player in front of me was an All Black. My chances of ever making the XV were virtually nil.