Rugby: Popoali'i ' just grateful to be alive'

Otago winger  Buxton Popoali'i scores a try against North Harbour in their ITM Cup clash at...
Otago winger Buxton Popoali'i scores a try against North Harbour in their ITM Cup clash at Forsyth Barr Stadium in 2012. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Never mind about not being able to play rugby. Buxton Popoali'i is counting his blessings he is still alive.

Highlanders and Otago winger Popoali'i, who retired earlier this month due to a heart condition, revealed yesterday he was given a no better than even chance by his surgeon of getting through heart surgery earlier this month.

''That was pretty scary. He came in and told me that there was a 50-50 chance of getting through it. That made it quite intense,'' Popoali'i said from Wellington.

''I was just lucky to have lots of friends and family around and they were really positive. They really helped me out. And I'm a positive guy by nature so that helped me. But it was pretty scary at that time.

''That is what a lot of fans and journalists don't know. I'm just grateful to be alive. It could have gone the other way. But I'm grateful to be here and talking on the telephone.''

Popoali'i (24) had an aortic heart valve replaced in a nine-hour operation in Auckland.

''When I woke up, my back and heels felt really numb as I had been lying on the table for so long. I felt all right. My heart felt all right but I couldn't move my heels and back.''

Popoali'i said he was feeling fine now. He was taking 14 pills a day and was, for now, at home living with his mum in Wellington.

He goes for a 45-minute walk every day, with his golden labrador, Simba, and will not be able to do anything strenuous for at least three months.

But he is far from down. Having been so close to the other side makes him quickly realise what he has now got.

''Sure, it was disappointing I had to retire. But, to be honest, life is bigger than a rugby field, bigger than a rugby game. I'm grateful for what I've got.''

He will take pills for the rest of his life, including one which keeps his blood thin, making him unable to play any contact sport.

He will bruise too easily, so rugby is no longer on the agenda.

The 1.73m pocket rocket joked he may give athletics a go, fancying himself as a hurdler.

He admitted it was initially a tough blow to take, when he was told on the day of the first pre-season match his season was effectively over.

''I had a great pre-season. I was pumped, really ready to go. I wanted to do my best at this level this year. But then I had a text from Jake [Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph] and had to go to meet him. I still remember it.

''He asked me how I was feeling. He then took me into the back room and the doc [Greg Macleod] and Purvy [manager Graham Purvis] were there.

''They talked about it and the doc said I couldn't play today and I might be out for the whole season. I was devastated at the time, gutted after doing all that training. But I am over it now.

"You've just got to look on the bright side. I'm planning my life now and looking ahead.

''I'll miss playing and getting on with all the boys. That is the good thing about rugby, all the friends you make.''

He was planning to head back to Dunedin after Easter and had already started a personal training course. He also wants to work with the Heart Foundation.

''Hopefully, I can help out other people who have had the same problems. Show them that they can come back and not get too down about what has happened to them.''

Asked for highlights of his career, Popoali'i said winning the Ranfurly Shield as an 18-year-old for Wellington was great, as were the years he played in Dunedin.

''But now the highlight is getting through the surgery and still being around. I can look back at a seven-year professional rugby career.

"But the biggest thing is I'm here. I'm a pretty happy guy by nature and that is the way I want to stay.''


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