Hardened All Blacks supported a Romanian rugby star before and after his escape from behind the Iron Curtain – as well as contributing towards medical treatment that helped his son walk. Neil Reid reveals one of the most heart-warming chapters in the All Blacks' storied history
Graham Mourie gave many inspirational speeches during his legendary stint captaining the All Blacks.
But few were as life-changing as his farewell words to former Romanian captain Alexandru Pop as his All Blacks prepared to fly out of Romania – a country then ruled by an unforgiving communist regime led by Nicolae Ceausescu - after a whirlwind, but dramatic, tour in 1981.
Pop had first befriended Mourie when he led Romania on their 1975 tour of New Zealand. The friendship meant so much to the bruising loose forward that, given the huge culture shock his friend's team were to face when they later toured Romania, he volunteered to act as the All Blacks' liaison officer.
As the All Blacks prepared to board their plane from Bucharest to France at the end of the tour – a trip where the appointed interpreter was a spy, soldiers "shoved" machineguns into the chests of several players, and letters sent home critical of Romania were edited by Romanian government censors - Mourie drew his friend in close before delivering six words which would help plot his path to future defection to the United States.
"We shook hands and he pulled me closer to him," Pop told the Weekend Herald from his home in Los Angeles. "He then said, 'Get out of this f***ing country'.
"I will never forget when they left. He is a good friend of mine."
The friendship began at Wellington's Athletic Park on a wet and windswept August day six years earlier.
Pop captained Romania, while Mourie captained the New Zealand Juniors during a tense 10-10 draw; the final match of the then communist nation's national rugby side's tour here.
They first shook hands prior to the match. The New Zealand Juniors laid down a pre-match haka challenge, with Pop responding by presenting his opponents with flowers and a handshake.
Mourie was the best player on the field, scoring two crucial tries despite severe illness.
"I read in the paper before the game that their captain was sick and had a fever," Pop recalled.
"After the game I told my team, 'You know, I want to know what type of bug he had because I wish I had the same bug before every game'. He was tremendous."
The draw against a New Zealand Juniors team, which featured numerous future All Blacks, was celebrated by both Romanian rugby and government officials.
"At the time rugby, like all the sport [in Romania], was financed by the government," Pop said. "For them the results were important because in their mind they thought that a good sporting result was good propaganda for their system."
When Pop and Mourie mingled post-match in a function room at Athletic Park neither knew the impact their burgeoning friendship would have on the Romanian captain, and just as importantly his wife, Betty, and son, Max.
"I didn't want them to have any mistreatment"
When Mourie and his 25 team-mates flew into the Romanian capital of Bucharest in mid-October 1981 for their two-match visit, they were greeted on the tarmac by tanks, anti-aircraft missile launchers and heavily armed soldiers.
Inside what was then called Bucharest Otopeni International Airport – which was used as a German air force base during World War II – a friendlier face was waiting for Mourie.
Pop, now aged 76, had volunteered to be the team's liaison officer
"I said to Graham Mourie, 'I am here to help ease your way through this. I will get you whatever you want and will help with any issues that you will have'," he said.
"I knew some of the All Blacks and what they represented. So I volunteered to be liaison and try to help them as much as I could with their welcome and show them that they had friends in Romania who admired them.
"I was trying to lessen the impact of a totalitarian system. I knew it wasn't going to be a great experience for them if they just looked at the socialist system in Romania, the communist [system].
"I tried to make them feel welcome and to try to help them through any adversity. I didn't want them to have any mistreatment, I wanted them to know that we really appreciated them and respected them for who there are."
Pop openly admits his status in rugby – then one of Romania's strongest team sports – saw him and his family enjoy a "better than average lifestyle" in his homeland.
But like the majority of the remainder of Romania's 22.2 million population in 1981, it was a life a world away from what New Zealanders knew.
"With international travel with rugby, it showed just how different things were compared to our country," Pop said.
"[To go to] New Zealand, it was like going to Mecca. Everybody . . . the spectators and players were supportive."
But the support he and his Romanian team-mates received in New Zealand paled into comparison with a humanitarian act of kindness the 1981 All Blacks were to bestow on Pop and his family.
"We didn't give it a second thought"
Mourie describes Pop as a "really decent guy".
And it wasn't long before other All Blacks felt the same way after befriending their liaison officer during the Romanian tour.
As friendships grew, so too did the knowledge of the health ordeal Pop's young son, Max, was battling.
The boy suffered from a serious spasmodic muscle condition in his lower legs, meaning he was unable to walk.
Touched by his plight, the All Blacks – who were then amateur players receiving a $5 daily allowance – dipped into their personal finances to raise money that would fund specialist medical care in the United States.
All Blacks physiotherapist Malcolm Hood – who says Pop is now "like a brother to me" - realised early on the sort of rehabilitation care Max would need.
"It immediately resonated with me," he said.
"It became very obvious to me that if the All Blacks banded together we could at least help in a very small way in getting Max over to the institute.
"Everyone stuck their hand in their pocket. And this was in amateur days. We were on $5-a-day. So for the All Blacks to be giving up their jobs and do amateur sport, it was a huge thing from the heart.
"Beautiful is the way to put it. Beautiful because it was completely spontaneous, it was completely the right thing to do."
Added Mourie: "We certainly chucked the hat around and gave him a reasonably significant amount of money to help him with that".
Halfback Andrew Donald – who made his first appearance for the All Blacks in the tour-opening clash against Romania South in Constanta – said the fact Max Pop would have travel more than 10,000km for treatment that could increase his mobility made him and his team-mates how lucky their families were to live in New Zealand.
"We didn't think [what we were doing] was a big deal. But it obviously was for him," Donald said.
"Once you got your head around that this could help, we never gave it a second thought."
The donation – the size of which has not been divulged - was made in US dollars, which Max's treatment would have to be paid with.
Hood said Pop had to be careful both how he stored and travelled with the financial gift.
"He would have been in real trouble if it was found he had US dollars," Hood said.
That could have included the government confiscating the sum, and Pop being thrown in jail.
The All Blacks were also aware that the donation was no guarantee that Max would either get the treatment he needed in America or that he would respond to it.
Max had undergone one treatment session in America prior to the arrival of the All Blacks.
Pop's status as a rugby icon had aided in his ability to get temporary passports for his family to travel for the treatment.
Under the brutal and ever-suspicious communist rule of his country, citizens did not have passports. Instead, they were issued with identity cards – which they had to carry at all times in their homeland– and were only able to apply for a passport covering the dates of overseas travel applications that were considered by officials.
"They wanted to make sure that you didn't defect," Pop said.
"We were fortunate that I had played rugby. When they knew that my son had a problem, they took a chance [by letting us travel] to America."
Pop and his son travelled to the US for Max's second round of treatment.
It was there that they were able to fall back on the generosity of the All Blacks.
"It was amazing from them, absolutely amazing," he said.
"It was a huge thing psychologically. When you live in a country like Romania, it is great to have friends somewhere else. Their support was very encouraging and very uplifting."
The All Blacks' act of human kindness also meant the Pop's had funding for a further third trip to the US; setting in motion a plan that would see him and his family defect from behind the Iron Curtain.
"We told nobody"
The global rugby community had looked after the Pop family when they first travelled to Philadelphia for specialist treatment for Max.
Former USA Eagles coach George Betzler – who was part of the American national team's coaching set-up at the 1987 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand – welcomed them into his house when they first travelled there.
A couple of weeks into their stay, Pop told Betzler that the family wanted to defect.
"I said, 'Holy God, I don't know anything about defecting but I will find out about it, the pros and cons for it'," Betzler told the Weekend Herald from his home in Philadelphia.
"I went to see a couple of lawyers and we said you are okay as long as you stay here, but if they push you out of the country you will be in deep trouble once you go back to Romania. They hummed and hawed and decided to go back."
They stayed with Betzler again on their second visit; which was aided by the All Blacks' donation.
When they came back for a third round of treatment, they decided to try to stay for good.
"Quite honestly their mind was made up that if they got out as a family, they were out [for good]," Betzler said.
Given the risks associated with unsuccessfully trying to defect from Romania – something that was the same for other countries behind the Iron Curtain – the Pops never told their nearest and dearest about their daring bid.
"My [wider] family didn't know that we were going to defect," Pop said. "We told nobody."
The defection was a decision that transformed Pop from a sporting hero in Romania, to a true enemy of the state.
Furious Romanian Government officials launched a bid to expunge him from their sporting folklore; that included destroying copies of books and other publications featuring his name or photo.
Back in the US, Betzler said Pop had no hesitation in telling his new American friend about the help he had received from the All Blacks.
"They raised a lot of money for him," he said.
"He did say he got a lot of help and was very friendly [with the All Blacks]. He regularly mentioned how supportive they were to him in helping him out.
"Rugby has been very supportive of them in so many different ways. [People] talk about support on the field, while support off the field here has been so important."
Alex and Betty Pop were both highly educated, holding a raft of engineering and mathematical qualifications.
Once American authorities supported their defection bid, one of Alex's first jobs was as a handyman at a golf course.
They then moved to Los Angeles after the owner of a large Cadillac dealership offered the former rugby star a job.
"I was a master in mechanical engineering, this job wasn't close . . . fixing cars and changing tyres . . . but we came to Los Angeles and helped the person."
He later found a job as a software developer, before setting up his own consultancy company in 1989.
"The end of the 1980s to 1990s was very good for IT and software," he said.
Alex and Betty are now happily retired and own several properties in Los Angeles.
Max's leg therapy was also a success. Both Max and Alex travelled to New Zealand and spent time with the Romanian team during the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
"It has been like living an American dream."
"What they did off the field will never be forgotten"
After Pop was interviewed for this story, he sent an email titled "The Human impact of 1981 All Blacks tour to Romania". It included a photo of Max Pop dancing on his wedding night.
Pop wrote that as well as gaining leg movement, Max had excelled in his professional life. He obtained a Masters in Information Technology from Georgetown University and now manages Richmond Virgina Police's IT department.
"Our family will always be grateful to each of [the] All Blacks players that befriended Max while in Romania and their generosity," he wrote.
"Thank you for your help for reminding our rugby superstar friends that a rugby game might be forgotten, but what they [have] done off the rugby field will be never forgotten."
That includes further offers of kindness he never took up after deciding to seek a new life in America for his family.
Mourie – who would eventually join the coaching staff of the Auckland provincial team – offered him a job in the side's off-field structure.
Fellow senior All Black Andy Haden also offered him a potential lifeline in New Zealand.
"I received a letter from Andy Haden saying, 'Alex, I have a three-bedroom apartment for you for free for a year, a car free for a year . . . a year to look for your engineering job."
Hood also visited the Pops several times in the early years after their move to America.
Pop said his friend became "very emotional" when he told him during a visit in 1982 he was working as a handyman at the golf club.
Two years later Hood returned with his wife and four children, staying with the Pop family and again leaving the former rugby star speechless with his generosity.
"They stayed for a while and he wanted to buy an old van because he had four children," Pop said.
"When he left, he left the van in the airport car park. He rang me and said, 'Alex the car is at the airport, the keys are on the backseat. Please sell it and keep the money'.
"Malcolm became a very good friend. We are very close."
At the time, the Pops were living in a tiny one-bedroom flat in the San Pedro area, a place where Hood said his friend "could get the cheapest housing" given their financial plight.
The Hoods had stayed in the Volkswagen Kombi parked on the street outside the house during their stay in LA.
Just like helping organising the team fundraiser in 1981 for Max Pop, Hood said offering him the Kombi to sell was also the right decision.
Pop said the actions of the Hoods was another gesture of generosity that touched him and his family deeply.
"The All Blacks and New Zealand . . . they are something very special to my family. Everybody is rooting for the All Blacks in my house," he said.
"It is a lifetime experience . . . something like this doesn't often happen. The generosity and friendship and genuine interest in how I am doing has just been amazing."
Speaking from his farm in the Whanganui region, Donald said although it had been nice to help Pop at the time, it was priceless to hear how life had turned out for him, Max and Betty.
"He was a top bloke; he couldn't do enough for us," he said.
"It was so cool to do that for that guy. And to hear from you . . . sometimes you might wonder about 'How did that work out?'. Then you hear as result like that, it is very pleasing."
It was a sentiment shared by Hood.
First involved with the All Blacks in 1975 – and being a physio at the top level of rugby through to the end of the rebel Cavaliers tour to South Africa in 1986 – he said it was incredible that he had been able to help someone who was a stranger to him when he flew into Romania, to them now being "lifelong friends".
"We have got a friendship that goes on and on and on. Alex is like a brother to me," Hood said.
"The story is quite miraculous. He ended up arriving in America with US$50, an incredibly disabled son, and a wife.
"It is a truly an unbelievable story. I have been around life a long, long time and done some incredible things. But that would be right at the very forefront of them."