Playing at a World Cup should be among the proudest moments for a rugby player, a coveted feather in the cap of any professional fortunate enough to make it to the sport's pinnacle.
Former back-row star Alix Popham should have nothing but fond memories of his own Rugby World Cup experience in 2003 when he helped Wales to the quarter-finals before being beaten by eventual champions England.
It was during that campaign that Wales finished second in Pool D after losing 53-37 to a mighty New Zealand line-up in Sydney, all the more difficult to take given the team then coached by Steve Hansen led 34-28 at one point.
Despite the defeat, that display holds a special place for some Welsh rugby fans for the valiant effort, producing the biggest points tally the team has ever amassed against the All Blacks.
But whereas most members of that Wales squad can look back on that performance with some pride, former Newport and Llanelli forward Popham tragically has no recollection on the match.
The 42-year-old started at No. 8 in Wales' final pool fixture, but after an accumulation of concussions and head trauma during his playing career, the fixture has faded altogether.
“I only know that I played in the game because of television footage and the fact that I have Jerry Collins shirt hanging on my wall,” Popham—who was diagnosed with early-onset dementia and probable Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in 2020—told Progressive Rugby , a lobby group aiming to safeguard players in the sport.
“That shirt is very special to me for obvious reasons (Collins and his partner Alana Madill were killed in a car crash in 2015) but I don’t have any recollection of the actual game.
“It’s clear it was an incredible game, and I can only imagine that it was thrilling to be part of it, but the truth is I can’t remember it, and I accept that is hard for people to understand.
“In Wales most people would give their right arm to play for the national team. Imagine the frustration of achieving that dream and not being able to remember it, not being able to relive it when you are lying in bed at night.
“I still love the game, but we need to look after the players properly and ensure that people can enjoy playing it at all levels for many years to come.”
Popham's comments have resurfaced after the airing of Slammed , a three-part BBC Wales documentary examining many of the major moments in Welsh rugby around the turn of the millennium.
The 33-cap veteran only made his Wales debut in June 2003, a few months before that year's World Cup Down Under, but it wasn't long before he was an established member of the starting XV.
Popham went on to spend almost five more years in the Wales set-up and earned the last of his Test caps in February 2008, but that World Cup contribution was among the biggest achievements in his career.
Speaking to BBC Wales earlier this year, he revealed more fixtures missing from his memory, which he's been told is a result of his brain being so inflamed during that period of his career.
He isn't alone in forgetting his World Cup highlight as a result of the toll that rugby has taken on his brain, either.
Steve Thompson—who has also been diagnosed with early-onset dementia—was England's hooker during their 2003 run, but he too has said he can't remember "any of those games" en route to the title.
Both Popham and Thompson are named as part of a lawsuit that intends to sue World Rugby and other governing bodies for negligence in failing to properly warn players over the potential long-term effects of a rugby career.
Tries from Shane Williams, Colin Charvis, Mark Taylor and Sonny Parker had Wales on course for one of the biggest results in their history in 2003, a major turnaround considering they'd lost 55-3 to the All Blacks five months prior.
However, New Zealand ultimately found their gear as a brace of tries from each of Dougie Howlett and Joe Rokocoko helped turn the tide in their favour.
The end result wasn't what Wales had hoped for, yet father-of-three Popham will still feel an additional loss at not being able to remember one of the biggest moments from decade-long professional career.
Speaking to the Guardian after learning of his dementia diagnosis in 2020, Popham said players tend to embrace a life in rugby knowing their body will deteriorate, but not enough has been done to raise mental health awareness.
“You know you are signing up for that," he said. "Same for all the guys I’ve spoken to. We knew our bodies were going to be in bits when we retired. But we had no clue our brains were as well.”
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