A decision to pull Buxton Popoali'i out of a Highlanders pre-season match in Queenstown in January just hours before kick-off may have saved his life.

Popoali'i, the Highlanders and Otago winger, retired from all rugby yesterday, having undergone heart surgery last week to fix a heart valve. He was advised by his doctors to give the game away.

The retirement of the chirpy 24-year-old was a blow for the Highlanders, on and off the field, coach Jamie Joseph said.

"It is a massive loss for us in terms of our team," Joseph said.


"He brought his stereo pretty much every day to training and had the speakers blaring. He is going to be a massive loss to our team.

"He is always the happy guy around in our environment, no matter what the situation is. We feel for him and his family.

"In hindsight, he was very fortunate not to have had a really bad accident at training. He had a heart condition that could have been fatal at any time. He is counting his blessings. The fact he is now healthier and risk-free from his potential injury is good for him."

Popoali'i played nine games for the Highlanders in 2012, and five last year. After an impressive season for Otago last season - he scored six tries to lead the province to the semifinals - he was set to have a major hand in the Highlanders this year.

But he was felled before he even got started.

Named in the Highlanders side to take on the Brumbies in a pre-season game in Queenstown on January 31, Popoali'i was withdrawn after an emergency phone call to team doctor Greg MacLeod the day of the game, Joseph confirmed.

"He was named to play that game. The doc knocked on the door at 1 o'clock and said he had an emergency phone call from the hospital which had taken the scan on the previous Thursday.

"The surgeon said, 'Handbrake that boy - something terrible could happen.' So we did.

"He could have had a fatal accident that could have cost his life. It is a condition that was exaggerated with exercise. So, in a professional rugby environment he was having that every day. To get away with that, to not be caught any time, is very lucky."

Popoali'i was out of hospital in Auckland and was resting with family. Joseph said he would be welcomed back to the Highlanders in whatever role possible.

"He is obviously gutted. Getting healthy is the priority for him and he will be doing that in Wellington for as long as it takes. But as soon as he comes right he will come back to his [Highlanders] family down here."

Otago Rugby Football Union general manager Richard Kinley said Popoali'i would be greatly missed by Otago. He was a key part of the Otago team, both on and off the field.