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'I'm actually quite a shy guy, if I have to walk up a red carpet, I'd sneak in the back'

Brent Pope arrives and puts down his motorcycle helmet -- smiling -- saying "just parked the Harley up outside".

I squint through the grey windows to see a Vespa. He laughs again. "It's the best thing I ever bought" explaining that his vintage Mercedes is giving him some trouble. I'd expect to see Brent Pope in an old Merc, but a Vespa?

Well it turns out that confounding expectations is what Pope does.

While in the midst of a battle for a starting spot on the All Blacks team, the group of players who won the first World Cup, Pope made international news headlines by writing a children's book.

Mid-1980s' New Zealand provincial rugby was a hard market for harder men. Pope remembers having to prop down when his own team's hooker had been sent off against an all All-Blacks front row -- expecting to get eye-gouged.

Weakness

Writing a children's book, even for charity, could have been seen as a sign of weakness. He says no one ever mentioned it on the field, except for one giant second row who paused in the split second before a line-out to say, "bloody good book".

He's now got four books, each of which have been for different children's charities and each of which have sold out, with a cartoon on the way.

There's a creative itch inside him that needs more than rugby as a scratching post. His acting lessons, screenplay and planned animated series all have a common thread, they hint at his willingness to be a showman, albeit an unshowy one.

"I'm actually quite a shy guy, if I've to walk into something up a red carpet, I'm always trying to sneak along the back. I don't like that side of it, I find TV fine because it's what I know about, but I find other situations difficult. There's a lot of people in TV like that. I'm always trying to push myself into other spheres."

It's rugby though that has allowed him the chance to indulge his other interests and meant that he'll have an audience for whatever he does next. As a key member of the RTE panel over the last decade and a half, and indeed its longest serving member, Pope has ridden the rugby rollercoaster. He's watched it explode and enjoyed the ride.

"When we were in Cardiff for the European Cup Final was when it really hit me. We were like a boy band walking down the street from the hotel to the ground.

"There were mobs of people rushing out of pubs to come over and spray us with Champagne, chanting our names, and the banter was brilliant.

"Our suits were ruined when we got to the stadium, we realised then that it had become something other than rugby". He's beaming recalling it.

It's a long way from when Pope arrived in Ireland, ostensibly to do a few months as a player before heading back to New Zealand. Upon arrival into Dublin airport he said he wondered what he'd done, the greyness a world away from his memories of Connemara which had so entranced him on a previous visit. But he stuck it out, playing rugby and working on a beer lorry.

The lorry delivered to some of the toughest parts of the city and Pope loved it.

"People would say to me afterwards Jeez that guy was a bit dodgy or didn't sound right, but I couldn't tell, I was just taking people as I found them". They took the crew-cutted Pope at face value too, and got along famously.

It's not our famed scenery that made Pope fall in love. Almost blithely describing New Zealand like an idyllic paradise -- skiing in winter, horse-riding and surfing in summer, actual seasons, great wine etc, initially it's hard to see why Pope speaks so highly of Ireland.

"The people. I love Irish people, they've always been accepting and warm. There was no snobbery involved, there was so much community spirit in those days"

Pope came to Ireland to reinvent himself and was delighted to find the Irish happy to meet his new self.

On the field his playing career was in the pre-Sky Sports era, so there wasn't much footage beamed into people's homes before he arrived. If Pope was arriving now for one of the provinces it'd be big news, a marquee signing. The big moments of his playing career down under also confounded expectations -- just in the wrong way.

Expected throughout his playing days to be capped fully by the All Blacks every time it looked likely injury intervened. Having played his best rugby in 1987, it looked certain that he'd be playing in the inaugural World Cup. With moments left of an effective final trial and just having heard his name announced over the tannoy as Man of the Match, Pope dived under the posts to prevent a try.

An opponent arrived a split-second afterwards and broke his arm in six places. He knew his World Cup dream was over. Zinzan Brooke was called from relative obscurity to take his place and has legendary status now in the aftermath of the All Blacks' only World Cup win. It obviously hurts but clearly Pope feels that his arrival in Ireland was somehow fated.

Over two decades later he's hoping we're getting back some of the sense of community in the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger.

"I think we all were stupid, myself included. I think people have come back to the realisation that money spent is money earned." Life wisdom from Popey -- confounding expectations again.

hnews@herald.ie