Wallabies stalwart David Pocock has made his mark on and off the field, writes TOM DECENT in the latest issue of SA Rugby Magazine.
It’s an overcast afternoon in London in November 2016 and David Pocock is sitting in a small cafe near Wembley Stadium.
Quite frankly, he’s a little bored. The Wallabies back rower is speaking above half a dozen tape recorders sprawled across a cream table about his impending 12-month sabbatical from Test rugby as part of a flexible deal his management struck with the Australian Rugby Union (as they were known then).
Pocock is polite – as always – but dislikes talking about himself and at times finds answering rugby-specific questions tiresome.
As the interview progresses without anything noteworthy, out of nowhere someone asks the man with arms like tree trunks what he thinks about Donald Trump being elected US president – news that broke a few weeks earlier when the Wallabies were in Edinburgh.
Pocock immediately snaps out of his semi-daze and his eyes widen. Finally, a chance to talk about something he really cares about – politics.
He puts both hands on the table.
‘What we’ve seen with Brexit and with Trump in the States, is that people are genuinely disappointed with our political system,’ Pocock said. ‘They don’t feel like it’s working for the average person and leaders are using that to make people afraid of these poor refugees that are going to …’
A back-and-forth exchange goes on for 10 minutes and the handful of scribes are blown away. Although barely any of his rational thoughts on a range of topics – climate change, immigration, racism in sport – make it to print just a few days out from an important Test against England at Twickenham, it gives an insight into why Pocock is a far more well-rounded individual and quite different to most rugby forwards, whose lives tend to revolve around burying their heads in rucks.
It takes just a few seconds of scrolling down Pocock’s Instagram page to see he is deeply passionate about the environment
and conservation work too.
This is a guy who was arrested for chaining himself to mining equipment in a protest against a new coal mine in 2014 and who also decided in 2010 he and partner Emma would not tie the knot until same-sex marriage was legalised in Australia.
Many players get asked what their plans are when they hang up their boots and most have a reasonable idea.
Pocock genuinely doesn’t know. For a guy as intelligent and proactive as he is, he could be doing anything in 30 years’ time.
Prime minister of Australia? Stranger things have happened.
However, there are far more urgent matters for Pocock at the moment and that is chiefly making sure his body is completely ready to compete at a third World Cup.
There has been a conspiracy theory in Australia throughout 2019 that Pocock’s calf injury is worse than has been let on. It has been described as ‘rare’ and at numerous points a return date has been pushed back, just when he looked to be on the cusp of coming back for the first time since March.
There is no one in the world as dangerous at the breakdown as David Pocock and the Wallabies know this. But the question is how they can utilise him as adroitly as possible while not compromising the balance of Australia’s back row.
Here’s a stat: when Pocock starts, the Wallabies have a 10% better chance of winning (58.5%) compared to when he is not playing (48.6%).
This may not sound like a profound difference but seldom are rugby stars so integral to a team’s chance of success.
Getting Pocock on the field for Australia’s first match against Fiji on 21 September is mission No 1. However, keeping him there for potentially six more games, if the Wallabies make it to the final, is going to be the bigger challenge.
Pocock believes the silver lining of being injured all year and undergoing arduous recovery sessions in a lonely gym is that
his body will be fresh for the rigours of a World Cup expected to be played at a frenetic pace on dry tracks in Japan.
‘You’ve got to look for positives and the fact I haven’t had a long Super Rugby season is one,’ said Pocock at Australia’s World Cup squad announcement in Sydney in late August. ‘The World Cup is gruelling. It’s potentially seven games in a row and they are all intense.’
Many former Australian players believe the Wallabies’ chances of breaking a 20-year World Cup drought rest on Pocock’s shoulders.
Sure, Michael Hooper, the captain, is an influential figure but Pocock’s prowess at the breakdown and knack of orchestrating two or three turnovers a game is a skill the Wallabies have missed in his absence.
However, a reliance on Pocock has also been exacerbated by the loss of Israel Folau; a player who the back rower respects but vehemently disagrees with regarding some of his recent comments about religion laced with anti-gay sentiments.
Folau’s first social media comment in 2018, in which he said homosexuals were destined for ‘HELL, unless they repent’, lit a bushfire.
Shortly after, former England centre Will Greenwood spitballed a potentially catastrophic ramification of Folau’s comments.
‘Pocock is massively supportive of gay marriage, of the LGBT community, and I know how strong he is on his principles,’
Greenwood said. ‘So you wouldn’t be surprised if he says: “I will not line up alongside this player in my team.”’
This scenario was unlikely but still possible by the same token. Pocock eventually came out and said he ‘absolutely’ could play alongside Folau. They did so 10 more times at international level in 2018 before Folau was shown the door by Rugby Australia this year for another post that further divided the Australian community and gave his bosses little choice.
Pocock was reluctant to publicly condemn Folau a second time and there is every chance he feels so strongly about this particular issue he wants to keep his powder dry until a later date. Perhaps not.
The bottom line is they won’t be there in Japan together and Folau is a major loss, hence the added responsibility for Pocock.
Not only is this Pocock’s last World Cup but possibly his final outing in the gold jersey for Australia and he certainly has unfinished business on the international stage.
However, there is the realistic possibility Pocock may not even start. The ‘Pooper’ combination he and Hooper made work at
the 2015 World Cup was deemed a success when many believed it would flounder.
However, the emergence of two tall, bulky back rowers in Isi Naisarani and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto this year has meant selectors will need to ponder whether starting Pocock and Hooper in the same starting XV is the best option.
Given Hooper is captain and a Michael Cheika favourite, the more likely option is that Pocock will come off the bench.
That won’t perturb Pocock because he is an incredibly unselfish player whose prime motivation is seeing the Wallabies
win. This comes back to the fact he doesn’t like any attention on him, even if he is producing magic on the football field.
Winning a World Cup would be the pinnacle of most rugby players’ lives and while every minute of Pocock’s waking life over the past six months has been dedicated to that goal, it is not the be-all and end-all.
He has other plans. Life after rugby, as unplanned as it is, is going to be just fine for Pocock and it will be fascinating to watch him devote as much attention to other pursuits as he has to becoming a truly unique rugby player.
– This article first appeared in the October issue of SA Rugby Magazine, a special 164-page bumper issue now on sale
Photo: Jason McCawley/Getty Images