David Pocock: Beyond the field

Thu, 22 Sep 2016 08:38
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IN THE SPOTLIGHT: rugby365 looks at Wallaby great David Pocock, recently described on the Australian Rugby Union website as "an enigma wrapped in a riddle".

Mention of the name David Pocock brings up visions of a burly rugby player, bent over a ruck stealing the opposition's ball possession or tackling the living daylights out of an opponent.

However, there is so much more depth to this 28-year-old, that rugby almost becomes a sideshow.

Pocock, who will miss the remainder of the 2016 Rugby Championship with a fractured hand, will further his studies and personal development in 2017.

And that is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg when you speak of a man who is involved in so many issues away from the game it will make your head spin.

His character is epitomised in how he has overcome his numerous injury setbacks.

The current hand injury is the latest in a series of unfortunate setbacks for Pocock, whose career has been littered with injuries - including two consecutive knee reconstructions, ankle and calf concerns, as well as a fractured eye-socket earlier this year.

Pocock, who has signed on to play for Australia through to the 2019 World Cup, has been released by the ARU to further his studies and personal development next year - after which he will be returning to Australia ahead of the 2018 Super Rugby season.

"I believe that after 11 seasons of professional rugby, having a year away from the sport will help increase my years in the game I love," Pocock said in a statement earlier this year.

"It will also give me the opportunity to do a bit more study and pursue interests outside of Rugby.”

Pocock, who was the standout Australian player in the 2015 World Cup, made his debut for the Wallabies in 2008 - captaining the side in 2012.

The former Australian Schoolboys and Under-20 representative has earned 55 Test caps for the Wallabies and has been nominated for the World Rugby Player of the Year three times (2015, 2011, 2010), claiming the coveted John Eales Medal (Australia's best player) in 2010.

Pocock - after back-to-back knee reconstructions in 2013 and 2014 - returned to the Wallabies and to the top of the international loose forward pecking order in 2015. He formed a lethal combination with fellow flank, Michael Hooper. He came within a whisker of the World Rugby Player of the Year award.

After taking over from George Smith as Australia's first choice openside flank in just his second international season in 2009, the Zimbabwe-born forward quickly became one of the game's dominant figures, earning IRB Player of the Year nominations in consecutive years, claiming the John Eales Medal in 2010 and eventually captaining the Wallabies in 2012.

Pocock's comeback 2015 season was arguably the best of his career - winning the Brumbies' Player of the Year award, earning his 50th Test cap and playing a pivotal role under Michael Cheika in the Wallabies' first Rugby Championship title and World Cup campaign - where they lost to New Zealand in the Final.

That, in a nutshell, is the story of his rugby acumen.

There is another side to this likeable star.

Unlike the typical rugby player, Pocock recently 'thanked' World Rugby and SANZAAR for banning him, after he faced the judiciary for the first time in his rugby career.

"I am incredibly disappointed with my actions," he said - which may sound like good PR, but is as genuine as Pocock himself.

"I endeavour to play the game I love in a way that reflects the kind of toughness and decency I think rugby can teach us. On Saturday I did not live up to those standards, placing Michael Leitch in danger by binding on his neck in a maul. It was not my intention to hurt Michael, but in these sorts of circumstances it is not intention that matters. I am grateful that World Rugby and SANZAAR are concerned about making the game safer for all of us."

Not the usual drivel you get from the weekly disciplinary hearings, where the only 'guilty plea' from transgressors would be in order to secure a more lenient sentence.

However, his statement - like the rest of his life - has so much more depth to it.

Of course there is his family's well-documented flight from Zimbabwe to Australia in 2002 - to escape almost certain death in violent government-orchestrated land grabs.

But, as they say in that classic television advert: "But, wait, there is more!"

Outside of rugby Pocock champions a number of causes often unfashionable among his peers, using his high profile to make powerful public statements.

He is the co-founder of EightyTwenty Vision, an organisation that partners with a rural Zimbabwean community development organisation that works in Nkayi, Zimbabwe. The focus areas have been around maternal health and food and water security.

As a patron of save the African Rhino Foundation he often works with and trains alongside Zimbabwean game rangers during his annual visits to his country of birth.

After years of involvement in campaigns for action on climate change, Pocock joined the Leard Blockade in November 2014 and chained himself to a superdigger in Maules Creek Coal Mine (in Leard State Forest), with fifth generation farmer, Rick Laird. He was arrested and

Then there is his determined advocacy for gay rights. That homophobia remains an issue in the sport is reflected in the fact that two England supporters had to be banned from Twickenham in November 2014 for their abuse of Nigel Owens, the openly gay referee. In  2015, in a game against the Chiefs, Pocock took to the field wearing rainbow shoelaces. He used to share a house with a lesbian couple and has been a public advocate in the campaign for marriage equality in Australia and has been a guest on the ABC's panel show Q&A - passionately debating opposition to legalising gay marriage. Although he and partner Emma Palandri held a 'wedding' ceremony in 2010, they have refused to sign the legal documents binding their marriage in law until their gay friends are able to do the same.

Pocock is studying a Bachelor of Ecological Agricultural Systems and is interested in the food system and how it affects health, lives and the environment. In his spare time he is a keen gardener.

Pocock grew up in a farming area just outside of Gweru, a city in the Midlands of Zimbabwe. He began playing rugby as an eight-year-old at Midlands Christian School.

His family (father, mother and two younger brothers) moved to Brisbane to start a new life in 2002, after the family farm was 'acquired' in the Zimbabwe governments 'land reform program'. He attended Anglican Church Grammar School and threw himself into sport, representing the school in rugby, waterpolo, athletics, swimming and cross country before focusing on rugby and waterpolo in his final two years of school, representing Queensland in both sports.

He toured with the Australian Schoolboys to the UK in December 2005 and on his return moved to Perth to join the Western Force for their inaugural 2006 season on an apprentice contract. After initially being unable to play Super Rugby, having not yet turned 18, he made his run-on debut for the Western Force in their last game of the season against the Sharks in Durban.

In 2008 he captained the Australian Under-20s at the Junior World Championship and then later that year made his Wallaby debut against New Zealand in Hong Kong. In 2010 he was recognised by his peers for his efforts, being awarded the John Eales Medal. In 2011 he played in the World Cup, where the Wallabies finished third. He was instrumental in knocking out defending champions South Africa in the quarterfinals.

In 2012 he captained the Wallabies to a 3-0 series win over Wales in the June Tests before picking up what was the first of a succession of knee injuries. He made the move to the ACT Brumbies in 2013 after seven seasons with the Western Force. Since then he has played a handful of games for the Brumbies after battling successive ACL reconstructions.

Last year was huge for Pocock, who returned to his best after a disappointing couple of years. He excelled with the Brumbies during Super Rugby, being acknowledged with the Brett Robinson Brumbies Player of the Year, Best Forward and Fans Choice awards. He was selected for the Wallabies and again played a critical role in Australia's World Cup campaign, where they lost to New Zealand in the Final. He was recognised for his form with a nomination for World Rugby Player of the Year, and won the peer-voted Rugby Union Players Association (RUPA) Medal of Excellence and RUPA Fans Choice Award.

Pocock, who still sees Africa as part of his life, openly spoke out about the politically-driven campaign that resulted in his family fleeing to Australia.

"My coping mechanism was sport," he said about the traumatic events of 2002 - when a neighbour was ambushed and killed, while his mother fled with the children into town one night and his father remained on the farm to protect their property while so-called 'war veterans' were raiding neighbouring farms.

"I developed a mindset where I simply didn't want to fail. I became obsessed about it and I would not have liked me then."

Pocock still has family in Zimbabwe and gets back to the country of his birth once a year.

"It is still a very special place to me ," he said, explaining why he is so intimately involved in charities on the African continent.

"Having kept in contact with people in Zimbabwe, I knew it was getting pretty tough.

"We decided we wanted to do something, but we weren't sure what we could do."

With his friend Luke O'Keefe, Pocock started a charity called EightyTwenty Vision.

"Our work began as a partnership with the Health Education Food Organisation [HEFO] and a community in Nkayi, Zimbabwe, focusing on cholera and HIV/AIDS. By 2010 we were able to shift our focus to issues like maternal health, education and food water security."

The irony of his departure from Zimbabwe is that as a young boy, he had dreams of playing for the Springboks.

One of the biggest turning points was when he and his family feared for their lives as President Robert Mugabe proceeded with the process of land redistribution.

A close family friend, who lived 15 kilometres away, was shot dead in an ambush. His son lived, but was also shot nine times.

Despite the traumatic even, Pocock still has fond memories of his country of birth.

"I was incredibly lucky to grow up in Zimbabwe," he said.

Speaking of his numerous causes, Pocock said: "I think it's crucial to have something outside of rugby. 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 to get results, but it gives you some perspective to have something that you're passionate about outside sport."

Bio:
David Pocock
Wallaby #829
Dare of birth: 23/04/1988
Position: Back row
Height: 183cm
Weight: 101kg
Born: Gweru, Zimbabwe
Super Rugby debut: 2006 v Sharks, Durban (Force)
Super Rugby caps: 91 (69 for the Western Force, 22 for the Brumbies)
Wallabies Test debut: 2008 v New Zealand, Hong Kong
Wallabies Test Caps: 55

Sources: davidpocock.com, rugby.com.au, Journeyman Pictures and ABC