Rugby career cut off in prime
After his shock retirement from rugby last month owing to a serious heart condition, Buxton Popoali'i chats to Kris Dando about his time in Porirua and what the future holds.
How old were you when you came to Porirua?
I was born in Auckland, and came down here when I was 11. I went to Maraeroa School and then Brandon Intermediate and made so many friends. I was more a sprinter, loved athletics, but after I went to Coll [Wellington College] the rugby really came on for me.
You're living in Khandallah with family now. Do you get back to Porirua much?
Not at the moment, with all the health stuff, but I try to. It will always be an amazing place for me, especially because of Norths. I was always going to play for them out of school. The support I've got from people in Porirua [since his heart issues became public] has been very humbling. It means a lot.
You were part of an untouchable era with Norths, with Jubilee Cup and Swindale Shield triumphs. The Ellison brothers, John Schwalger, Alapati Leiua, Robbie Fruean, Anthony Perenise, James So'oialo, Api Naikatini . . . what a team.
It's great to be able to look back on that time, especially as you get a bit older. The talent coming through was great and I was thankful to be a part of it. We were more than a team or a squad. It was a family, a brotherhood. I didn't see myself as an individual in an environment like that - there was respect for the older players and for the young ones like me, and we had each other's back, on and off the field. That group will always be tight.
Do people realise the extent of your heart condition?
I had rheumatic fever quite bad when I was young [it led to a heart valve replacement in 2006, when he was a sixth former]. In March I had to have a valve replacement again and it was scary. I was only given a 50/50 shot of getting through the surgery. I'm grateful to be here.
What happens now?
I'm having blood tests and am on 14 pills a day and will be taking medication for the rest of my life. The main pill I'm taking is a blood thinner, so if I got hit in a game I would bruise easily and it could be really damaging. There could be blood clots, so rugby is just not an option.
How hard is it giving away the game you love, aged 24?
When you're playing rugby you're sometimes in a bubble. You're training, you're playing, it's fun. When you can't do what you love any more, it can be hard, but you have friends and family and that's what's important in life.
What does the future hold?
I'm going back to Dunedin to finish off a course in personal training and, because I'm still contracted with the Highlanders, I'm going to see if I can help out with the team in whatever way I can. I think I'll end up back in Wellington - I've been here since I was 11. Maybe we'll buy a house here soon. Being involved in rugby in the future could be on the cards, passing on what I know and love about rugby. I'm going to have to see what happens.
BUXTON POPOALI'I STATS
Born: December 4, 1989 (age 24)
Place of birth: Auckland
Height: 1.73m (5ft 8in)
Position: Wing, fullback
Porirua schools: Maraeroa, Brandon
Wellington club: Northern United 2008-11
Provincial: Wellington 2008-10, Otago 2011-13
Super Rugby: Highlanders 2012-13, 15 caps