There are numerous layers to the man and the rugby player David Pocock has grown into, writes MARK CASHMAN.
At the height of the ‘homophobic slur’ scandal that enveloped Jacques Potgieter and David Pocock in the wake of the clash between the Waratahs and Brumbies earlier this year, there was a train of thought that the latter was getting noticed more for what he did off the field than on it.
Social media and the newspapers were awash with a range of opinions on the forthright actions of the gifted Wallabies No 7.
They ranged from ‘he should have left it on the field’ to ‘well done’, coupled with calls for major changes to the tolerance of this sort of unacceptable behaviour at all levels of the game.
After all, over the past 30 months the former Wallabies skipper had been through two public knee reconstructions, played little rugby, taken a public stance on same-sex marriage and been arrested after strapping himself to mining equipment in a protest against the expansion of a coal mine in Maules Creek in a forested area of northern New South Wales.
The Australian Rugby Union even went so far as to give him a slap on the wrist in the wake of that arrest, arguing that his off-field pursuits could impact on what he was being well paid to do – be a pest at the breakdown and play some rugby.
But that showdown between the Australian Super Rugby conference rivals in Sydney was in many ways a watershed moment for Pocock the rugby player.
Once the media storm had died down he went from strength to strength on the field and showed there was still plenty of life left in Wallaby No 829.
His value was evident as the Brumbies made their way through to the Super Rugby semi-finals and Pocock helped give a back-row masterclass to an undermanned and obviously distracted Stormers side in Cape Town.
For much of the Super Rugby season there was Waratahs flank Michael Hooper, some daylight and then Pocock if you were picking a Test side in any particular week. Hooper excelled with his running game and work in defence, while Pocock seemed stodgy by comparison.
But as the end of Super Rugby edged closer, Pocock found his feet and certainly muddied the selection waters. The timing was coming and the match fitness so vital at the highest level was sticking.
His strength over the ball was there for all to see and the fact he scored six of his seven tries from rolling mauls says much about his organisational skills and strength.
One thing is for sure – Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has options when it comes to selecting a fetcher for the Rugby Championship and ultimately the crucial pool games against England and Wales at the World Cup.
Former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones, now in charge of rugby in Japan, knows which way he would go if he had a vote at the selection table.
‘Tight Test matches are won in the contests like the set piece and breakdown. Hooper is a fantastic player who is fast, has a great sense for attack and is equally proficient at contesting for the ball on the ground. But he lacks Pocock’s physical presence.
‘At the 2003 World Cup, I went with two opensiders, George Smith and Phil Waugh, together in the back row by default. I remember being widely criticised by the great forwards coach Alex Evans for not picking a jumping No 6 and he was right.
‘My rationale was that with Waugh being a tighter player on the ball, playing the traditional No 7 role, and Smith playing like a No 6.5, without the jumping, we could field our best forwards.
‘If Jonny Wilkinson had missed the drop goal in the final, it would have been a brilliant selection. He slotted it and I was a dummy, but that’s the life of a coach.’
David Wilson, 1999 World Cup-winning No 7, believes greater rugby minds than his will need to decide who is the Wallabies’ starter and who is their finisher.
‘I think that decision revolves around what style of play Michael Cheika wants to bring to the table and who they are playing,’ he adds. ‘Hooper’s attacking game is probably better than Pocock’s, but Pocock’s close-quarters work cannot be faulted. It’s very much a horses for courses sort of selection decision.
‘In my mind, you cannot run with both of them at the start of a game. That’s been tried with players like George Smith and Phil Waugh and I don’t think it works to any great degree. At this level you need balance in your back row; especially at lineout time when you need an additional jumper. But as we have seen with these two guys, we have options.’
It has been one hell of a journey for Pocock since he fled Zimbabwe with his family way back in 2000, the year Robert Mugabe announced plans to acquire white-owned farms. The family grew flowers on their farm outside Gweru, in the midlands of Zimbabwe, and were given 90 days to get off their land. As the deadline grew closer gangs of angry young black men began terrorising those who stayed with guns, machetes and threats.
The Pococks laid low and waited, bunkering down in friends’ houses when the atmosphere grew unbearable. But once a farmer friend of theirs, who lived about 15km down the road, was killed it was decided it was time to get out.
They spent nine months in South Africa and then received the news that they had obtained targeted visas to Australia. They moved to Brisbane and David and his brother quickly settled into life Down Under, throwing themselves into sport and academic life.
But there were stresses in the new life in Australia and as Pocock has admitted, he became obsessive with achieving. He was so concerned about his diet and training that he would become upset and cry when a ‘healthy option’ was not available when the family ate out at a restaurant for dinner.
The upside was he accelerated his physical development and, from the age of 16, Super Rugby teams were keen to see him sign a contract. He spent two years in the Australian Schools side and then linked with the Force where he made his Super Rugby debut in 2006.
Regular starts for the Force followed in 2007 and at the end of the 2008 season he was called into the Wallabies squad that toured the northern hemisphere, making his Test debut against the All Blacks in Hong Kong.
Wallabies greatness was at his feet and that’s the way it was looking until he tweaked his knee and needed to undergo major reconstruction surgery during the Test series against the British & Irish Lions in 2013. Rehab followed and then his knee went again.
Right through this process, though, Pocock was becoming a more rounded person, not the slightly obsessive type he was earlier in his career. The David Pocock you see today is a different man.
‘I think it’s crucial to have something outside rugby,’ he says. ‘By nature, sportsmen can be pretty selfish and to a large extent you have to be; you have to be focused on what you’re doing so that you get results. But it gives you some perspective to have something you’re passionate about outside sport.’
Version 2 of David Pocock sounds a hell of a lot better equipped for what lies ahead for him in 2015 – on and off the field.
If you thought David Pocock’s decision to call out homophobic slurs was a heat-of-the moment thing, you couldn’t be further from the truth.
Pocock has been a public advocate for same-sex marriage in Australia for a number of years and even had a commitment ceremony in 2010 with his partner Emma rather than a legal marriage ceremony. He took the stand because he said he wouldn’t feel comfortable when friends who were in a same-sex relationship could not do the same.
Pocock also acted as an ambassador for the Bingham Cup, the gay World Cup, staged in Sydney in 2014. He has also been on a TV talk show in Australia debating with other sportsman about the rights of homosexuals in the professional sporting environment.
In 2012, Pocock was on the ABC’s Q&A panel, challenging the controversial view put forward by Aussie rules footballer Jason Akermanis that players shouldn’t come out.
‘If you look at all the football codes, there aren’t any athletes who have come out in the past few years, and if you look at the statistics, there have to be athletes [who are gay],’ Pocock explained.
‘A sort of macho or whatever way of viewing football in Australia prevents people from expressing their sexuality. This is something we have to change. We have to be challenging homophobia so that people, regardless of their sexuality, can express that.’
– This article first appeared in the August 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine