Rugby: Popoali'i smiling through adversity

Buxton Popoali'i on the exercise bike at the Otago Polytechnic gym yesterday. Photo by Gregor...
Buxton Popoali'i on the exercise bike at the Otago Polytechnic gym yesterday. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
Buxton Popoali'i wants to be a policeman.

But, really, he is grateful just to be alive.

Popoali'i admitted he had had a roller-coaster year - but said he had learnt some important lessons which he hoped would help him in the future.

Popoali'i was forced to retire from his career as a professional rugby player earlier this year due to heart problems, ending his playing days at just 24.

He will speak at a Heart Foundation dinner at the Otago Golf Club later this month, outlining his eventful year.

Popoali'i still has a positive outlook on life, and wants to share his story and how he is all the better for it.

''It has been life-changing for me. But I'm just happy with what I'm doing. Happy to see friends, happy to help people, happy to hear my Mum's voice,'' Popoali'i said.

The chirpy winger was eyeing a starting spot for the Highlanders on the wing at the start of this year.

But, on the day of the first pre-season game in late January he was called in to see team management, and doctor Greg Macleod told him he was out of the game and quite possibly the season.

The outside back had rheumatic fever as a teenager and had an operation when he was still at school.

The heart issues had returned and a pre-season medical found some alarming problems.

His heart valve had enlarged dangerously and if he played, he could do some serious damage - we are talking life or death.

He was withdrawn from the match and a few weeks later went under the knife in Auckland, with the surgeon warning him he might not come through the nine hour-plus operation.

But he did, and although he could no longer play rugby, he was up and walking.

''Sure, you get moments when you are down, but everyone's life is like that,'' Popoali'i said.

''What has happened to me is what motivates me in whatever I am doing. You've got to make the most of everything that comes along.''

His health was fine, he said. He has lost 6kg - he is down to 80kg - and is about to finish a personal training course.

He trained with both the Highlanders and Otago this year and said it was great to still be part of it.

''I do miss some parts of the game. Just stressing out whether I've made the starting XV - whether I'm in the playing 23.

"Just the competitiveness between the boys, the players and the environments. Making new friends.''

He did not miss the injuries he picked up in rugby, and long term his goal was to join the police force.

But that is the future. He is set to coach Green Island in the premier club competition next year. The side won only one game last season, so it is not going to be easy.

''That is something to look forward to. There is only one way to go with them and that is up.''

Popoali'i will speak at a Heart Foundation dinner at the Otago Golf Club on November 21.

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