Monday 21 January 2019

'Poppy' back in the spotlight

Wexford man in 'first XV' of last fifty years

Ben Popplewell
Ben Popplewell

David Medcalf

At last young Ben Popplewell has firm evidence that his father really was quite a handy rugby player in his day. The 'Irish Independent' gave 11-year-old Ben's dad the centrefold treatment recently when the paper published its 'First XV' selection, with Nick Popplewell named at loose head prop in the best of Irish fifteen from the past half century.

Youngest in the family, Ben was born after Nick hung up his boots and walked away from the sport which made him a household name. The 48-year-old father of three is happy to turn out once or twice a year in veteran charity games but he seldom if ever darkens the door of the Aviva Stadium. His brood play soccer or Gaelic games rather then rugby.

The former rampaging forward was caught unawares by the conferring of the honour by the 'Indo', which placed him ahead of such scrummaging luminaries as his predecessor in the number one shirt Phil Orr or the current Leinster incumbent Cian Healy.

A text from former team Rob Henderson, another man with strong Wexford associations, alerted 'Poppy' to the news. Now the Kilrane resident is quietly glowing with the pride of being named in a notional side that also includes such greats as Mike Gibson and Brian O'Driscoll.

Nick's early years offered little indication that rugby would be the sport in which he would excel. Born in Dublin, the Popplewells returned to the family farm at Ballyoughter in the Gorey area when he was seven. He was dispatched at the age of nine as a boarder to Newtown School in Waterford, where the game with the oval ball ran a poor second to hockey.

He represented Ireland at underage level with stick in hand and also lets slip that he played cricket for Munster Schools. He confides that did not fancy being hit by the hard cricket ball, preferring bowling to batting.

It was only after left he Newtown and enrolled on a business diploma course at Carlow Regional that rugby became a major interest in his life.

He found himself lining out with Gorey alongside the likes of Dougie Kidd, Paul Kidd and his own brother Newton (now living in New Zealand). His potential was quickly spotted and he was immediately elevated to the first team, the start of two very enjoyable seasons with Gorey RFC.

'I always aspired to play for Ireland, even when I was in school,' he muses. 'That is what I aspired to and it happened!' His local club proved to be the first step on a ladder that led constantly upwards. The second rung on that ladder was Greystones, a move engineered by Roger Boyd.

His new club was enjoying a period of high achievement. The switch to Doctor Hickey Park propelled him into international company, as he rubbed shoulders with Tony Ward, Johnny Robbie, fellow prop John Murphy (still playing junior rugby with Enniscorthy) and that man's namesake, another John Murphy, who played at full back.

He was ambitious enough to spend a stint Down Under playing in the warmth of Brisbane but came back to Ireland in order to claim a place in the Leinster team. That was much less of a deal then than it would be now.

He was aged 25 when he earned his first cap for Ireland against the All Blacks in 1989. He lasted just 18 minutes of the game at Lansdowne Road before picking up a rib injury, A couple of seasons elapsed before he became a regular for his country.

He went on to clock up 48 caps in all, enduring his fair share of lows as well as enjoying the highs before stepping down in 1998. His excellence in the front row was acknowledged by his selection for a British & Irish Lions, enjoying a win over the All Blacks while on tour in New Zealand.

Those were the days when it was not unknown for Nick to share a few pints in the company of Peter Clohessy and Mick Galwey in a London pub on the night before thumping England at Twickenham. However, Poppy's career extended from the amateur into the professional era, ending his rugby playing days on the books of Newcastle in the north east of England.

A cauliflower ear serves as reminder of his sporting past but family life with wife Rachel, work as an estate agent at Sherry FitzGerald Haythornthwaite in Wexford and the pursuit of a Master in Business Studies degree keep him fully occupied. His 18 stones - down just a notch from the 19 stones he weighed at the conclusion of his playing days - is maintained in order with regular running.

He is glad to be back in Wexford raising a Wexford family. Sixteen year old Stephanie is a dancer, while Stephanie (14) and Ben pursue team games.

'I don't miss rugby at all,' he confesses. 'I had a long career.' These days, the former ruck and maul marauder may be found instead fishing off the shore at Rosslare or Kilmore - far, far from the madding crowd.

Enniscorthy Guardian