Sunday 18 February 2018

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.

"I think that all people are competitive," he tells me. I say some more than others.

In the end, rugby broke his heart – as he never got to wear that All Black jersey with the silver fern – but it saved his life, too. "Rugby kept me going," he says. At times in his life, when he was anxious about exams or negative about the direction he was going in, rugby was his balm.

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.

This is his ethos not just in rugby but in life, an ethos instilled in him by his parents, both still alive. His mother, Helen, was a highly driven woman who spent many years in her family business, breeding race horses. His father Michael was a hard grafter, working long hours in a freezing works with the meat export industry. He taught Brent respect, and believed in giving back to the community by doing good deeds.

This is a trait that his son has inherited. He does extensive charity work. On the day I meet him, he tells me that the previous week he was dressed as a mystery Santa Claus and people were peering behind his white beard in an attempt to identify him. But it was all for a good cause. In the days after we meet he will be in Crumlin Hospital visiting children. He is happy to give of his time, and enjoys it.

"You have to get something out of it yourself and I really do enjoy meeting these people. Also, when you see people who have problems, you realise that you are lucky and that you have a lot to be thankful for." Brent Pope is always pushing himself to do new things, to get out of his comfort zone. Once he decides on a project, off he goes to achieve it.

His sporting life has stood to him as he reaches his many goals. He has written a screenplay which he hopes will be made into a film some day and he has written several children's books, with all the proceeds going to charity. He opened an art gallery for mental health patients – Outsider Art Gallery – and this year he learned to play the clarinet in a very short space of time for an RTE television show called Instrumental.

As he was preparing for the show, he suffered a panic attack. Of course it was normal to have difficulty cramming the intensive lessons, but then all his negative thoughts began to spiral. Was he going to fail at everything in his life? Had all his life been a failure? This was a familiar feeling for him.

In 2009, Brent was diagnosed as having a dysthymic personality which, he explains, is best described as "a state of chronic discontentment".

"I overthink things too much, bombard my mind with negativity and then in spite of myself, I start to withdraw emotionally because I am afraid of getting hurt. The American clinical psychologist, Dr Alan Downs, refers to it as the half-empty heart. The minute I told my brother that I had it, he said that he knew. It explained my negativity and my lack of self-confidence which led me to believe that I couldn't sustain a loving relationship.

"I have had great relationships with wonderful women, some of them long-term, but yes, it was probably self-sabotage in the end. Also, accomplishing my targets has never fully satisfied me. I'm always thinking of the next one.

"Despite being told by various coaches that I was good at rugby, I never wanted my mum and dad to come and see me play."

On the one hand, Brent is willing to discuss his problem, but he doesn't want to be labelled by it.

"I'm no poster child for mental health and nor do I want to be."

He acknowledges that it is normal for him to look at life in a glass-half-empty way but he doesn't want to accept this negativity, and so he bites back. Atta boy.

"I know it sounds a little 'Oprah', but I've recently started to keep a gratitude journal.

"I begin each day by thinking about what I'm grateful for and I make a list of five things. They can be small simple things like a blue sky. I do this every day and it makes a difference. Also, I try not to think too far ahead. I try to live in the now. And I suppose I try not to beat myself up any more. I try to take the positive out of everything.

"Take that man who said hello. Years ago, I wouldn't have been able to accept his kind words, but now I do.

"I've worked at it. I'm positive and upbeat and I try to take the positive out of everything, even if I have to force myself."

'Brent Pope – If You Really Knew Me,' by Brent Pope and Kevin MacDermot is published by Irish Sports Publishing, €19.99

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