independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

'The pain of missing the World Cup is as acute today as it was 25 years ago ... It will never leave me'

In exclusive extracts from his book ‘If You Really Knew Me’, Brent Pope reveals the anguish of watching Zinzan Brooke take his place – and wonders what might have been

Attacking the gain-line for Otago despite playing with a badly broken wrist with future Springbok and Terenure scrum-half, Kevin Putt

SLOWLY I began to piece together those last few moments of the trial.

In that final play of the day I was driving for the line with my arm stretched straight out. Unfortunately, I was near the goalpost and my straightened arm was caught right in front of it.

Unaware of my precarious position, but determined to get me over the line for that precious try, my South Island team-mate and All Black, Andy Earl, dived in to add his considerable 17 stone to the cause.

But he dived on my arm. The limb was straight out against the goalpost in front of me and had nowhere to go so, as Andy landed on it, the limb gave way at its weakest point. The elbow dislocated, not to the side as it normally would, but with the back coming completely off the ball and socket joint.

It fractured and compounded out the back of my arm in a freak injury that my doctors later admitted they'd only ever seen once before, when a hang-glider tried to save himself from hitting a cliff face by reaching his arm out. My elbow was shattered, my arm broken in a number of places.

I've always had a high threshold for pain. I've had a lot of injuries in my career and I've played through most of them. But I've never experienced pain like I did that day.

Because of all the nerve endings at that point in your body, the elbow is one of the most sensitive areas of the human body – even getting a tap on your 'funny bone' can hurt.

Anyone who has dislocated an elbow or shoulder, which cannot be immediately put back, knows that the pain is excruciating. Due to the severe nature of my elbow's dislocation, medics at the game were unable to manipulate it back into place, so they brought me to hospital and pumped me full of drugs.

And, as I lay there in the arms of sweet, sweet Morpheus, the doctors tugged, operated, cut, tore, broke, pinned, stitched and finally put my arm back in one place. Then they plastered my limb from shoulder to fingers and fitted me with a brace so that I couldn't straighten my arm.

My Otago coach, Laurie Mains, rang the hospital to check on me and I always appreciated that. So, too, did the All Blacks' other selectors. The doctor gave them all the same answer: "Brent's out of the World Cup race and it might be doubtful if he will ever play rugby at the top level again."

Only time, and my arm's ability to straighten, would tell. Then everyone left me alone. I had my thoughts to keep me company. Thoughts about how my All Blacks World Cup dream was over.

In quiet moments, alone in the hospital, bitter tears ran down my face. Three decades later, I can still taste those tears. I can still taste my disappointment. But, at the end of it all, what could be done about it? Nothing. My chance was gone and that was that. My World Cup dream became Zinzan Brooke's World Cup dream.

The player who hadn't been involved in the lead-up games was flown in and, without having a trial or a George Nepia tournament match, was selected for the final squad by the All Blacks coaches who wanted a player who could provide cover for all three back-row positions.

Michael Jones' strict observance of the Sabbath meant that Zinzan now stood a chance of playing in some of the World Cup games. In the end, he played against Argentina, scored a try, and went on to become perhaps the greatest No 8 in international rugby history.

In the aftermath of missing out on the World Cup, I was overwhelmed by self-doubt. I wondered whether my missing out was down to lousy luck or something closer to home. At times, I convinced myself that missing out on All Black immortality had little to do with bad luck and everything to do with me: my sanity, my head.

Was I responsible for what happened? Did my chronic self-doubt conspire to sabotage me? Did I stack problem upon problem until some molehill became a mountain? Did my own self-doubt somehow cause my injury?

I pushed the thoughts from my head but somewhere, deep in the recesses of my mind, the doubts remained – hidden, buried, but ever-present. They've always been there.

I left hospital around the same time as Zinzan, Michael Jones and the men who, in my mind, were supposed to be my team-mates were moving into the team hotel and preparing for the greatest rugby tournament in the world.

But instead of reclining on a bed in downtown Auckland, I faced a trip home to Dunedin and months of sleeping upright in a chair. Cards and letters poured in from well-wishers all over New Zealand and, at that low ebb, I was truly thankful for them.

But kind thoughts couldn't compensate for having to watch the World Cup – my World Cup – whilst propped up in a bed, popping painkillers.

It's maybe idle speculation on my part, but it's difficult, even 30 years later, not to look back and wonder. History, of course, records that New Zealand went on to win that inaugural World Cup and the players involved were all, rightly, lionised for their triumphant efforts.

It took subsequent All Black sides almost a quarter of a century to win another World Cup, a failure that elevated that original winning team from lions to gods. Their place in New Zealand history – not just rugby – is assured forever.

And it's impossible not to think, 'that could have been me'. It's impossible not to look back and feel regret. To have missed out by a wide margin would have been one thing, but to have come so close and still miss out ... well, that's harder to take.

The World Cup. 1987. I had been so fit. So ready. To have come from such a small, rural town and to have stood on the cusp of World Cup glory and stardom – and all that goes with it – was an achievement in itself.

Sport is cruel and life is more cruel but, even acknowledging there are greater calamities happening every day in the world, for me the pain of missing out on that World Cup, and knowing that four years later I would be too old, is as acute today as it was 25 years ago.

Devastated

I was devastated. Still am. I know it will never leave me. Like an action replay of some famous try or great tackle, I often rerun it all in my mind. Despite my best efforts to push them from my mind, there are still the 'what ifs?'.

What if I hadn't been injured? What if I had been the one to run out onto that World Cup field instead of Zinzan? What if I had played against Argentina and what if I had scored that try?

What if? What it? What if?

I don't begrudge Zinzan his place in history. He's a friend and a wonderful standard bearer for the All Blacks and the Maori, and it was obvious to everyone that he was always going to be a magnificent player. His ball skills, aggression and competitive streak were almost incomparable.

Still ... sometimes, in the still of the night, I picture myself in Zinny's No 7 jersey, darkest black, save for the silver fern on the breast. And, in my mind, it's not the great Zinzan Brooke smashing into the opposition. It's a young, unknown, freckle-faced kid with a dodgy mullet and a pair of chicken legs from a bump in a dusty New Zealand road.

And I wonder if I could have made it like Zinzan. Could I have been the No 8 whose name was on everybody's lips? Who knows?

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