Ferocious at the breakdown and best ball scavenger in the game – descriptions of David Pocock’s on-field persona make him out to be some sort of rabid wolverine.
For opposing openside flankers who have to contend with his power and guile in the contest for the ball, it’s a fair call. But there’s plenty more than seems fair to this wily bruiser.
At 24, he’s already deputised as Wallabies captain and with his qualities as a player matched by his well-chosen words outside the game, he’s tipped to take on the role permanently at some stage.
Despite several months out of the game, he’s so highly regarded he finished second in voting for the John Eales Medal for Australian rugby’s best player last week, behind Nathan Sharpe.
Pocock, who grew up in Zimbabwe and moved to Brisbane in 2002 when his family had to flee their farm amid political upheaval, was also a finalist for Young Australian of the Year for his charity work.
He returns from two months of rehab for a knee injury when he lines up for the autumn tests in Europe, starting this weekend in Paris – France, England, Italy and Wales won’t be encouraged by the knowledge he’s out of the physio’s room and champing at the bit to get out there.
“I’ve treated it as a bit of a mini pre-season,” he tells TNT, adding his body’s ready for the tough clashes ahead in Europe.
Pocock returns to a side which limped through the Rugby Championship and copped flack from fans and pundits in his absence, but on the back of an encouraging 18-all draw in their last start against the world champion All Blacks – the Wallabies had quality and plenty of spirit after all. “I thought the effort was outstanding,” Pocock says.
“No one can question the commitment of the team, and given our inexperience in certain areas due to injury, I thought the Championship was a great learning experience for the squad.
“The effort has been great but there are areas of our game that can improve a lot, which is exciting.”
His replacement, Michael Hooper, played like such a champ that coach Robbie Deans may even try to find space in the 15 for both of them – but Pocock’s still the first choice.
“Hoops has been fantastic,” he says of his 21-year-old understudy.
“He’s got through a mountain of work and I’ve enjoyed watching it. It’s been a tough year for the Wallabies but the opportunities that a number of young guys like him have been given will be great for the team in the long run.”
Provided he can stay fit, Pocock is a clear choice to take over as Wallabies skipper when Sharpe, 34, retires after this four-test tour.
It’s a role his career’s inadvertently been leading to, having captained age teams and being picked so young to fill in for injured James Horwill, even if his priority is tackling and forcing turnovers.
“I enjoy serving the team in that role but it’s not something I chase after,” he says. Pocock intends to be a leader beyond sport, too.
A recent episode of political panel show Q&A in Australia featured the flanker butting heads with intellectuals and politicians, and notably schooling former tennis star-tured-Liberal MP John Alexander on the legalisation of gay marriage.
“How can we be challenging homophobia when we’re saying, ‘You’re equal to me but you’re separate, I’ll go sign this [marriage] document but you can go have your civil union,’ which is the same, but not really,’” was part of his measured, softly spoken and applauded rant.
He added he and his girlfriend Emma have decided they won’t get married until their gay friends are allowed to.
Pocock’s also spoken out about climate change. But wouldn’t it be easier to just keep his mouth shut?
“Not everyone likes that I’ve spoken out or weighed into the debate on those two issues but they’re really important to me, so it’s worth it,” he tells us.
“There is often the old ‘sports and politics don’t mix’ line, but I think that’s rubbish.
“Sports people benefit so much from society so it’s important they’re giving back by being a good role model and engaging politically – it’s important that young people take an interest in current issues and become involved in more than clicktivism and sharing a Facebook status or watching a YouTube clip.”
Fond memories of “barefoot rugby in baggy jumpers” when growing up in Gweru, Zimbabwe, are the foundation for Pocock’s attitude to rugby, with memories of “kicking the ball around with my brothers ‘til the light faded as my dad coached the high school first 15”.
Despite being a proud Aussie, he says Zimbabwe still has “a special place in my heart”.
He’s kept that connection strong through the charity he co-founded, 80/20 Vision. “The work we’re doing with a community development project is really important,” he says.
“Our focuses are food and water, security, health and education – areas that require more attention across the world.”
Pocock knows that he wouldn’t get such a forum if he wasn’t such a dynamite on the field.
And since he burst into international rugby in 2008, he’s been challenging Richie McCaw for the title of world’s best flanker.
Rugby fans missed out on his already legendary head-to-head with the All Blacks captain this season – it’s a clash that decides the best player in the world for some observers.
“I stay out of that,” he says of this debate.
“He’s a great player who’s achieved a ridiculous amount in rugby, and he deserves the accolades he receives.” Why is McCaw so good?
“His ability to play on the edge of the laws, timing and picking his moments – it’s what good flankers do,” Pocock says of the veteran.
There’s no way he’d say it himself – it’s not his style – but that’s exactly what Pocock does, and he’s just getting started.
Hemispheres collide: north v south in tests
It’ll be the unofficial championship between the north and south hemispheres from this weekend, when the top teams from both regions clash for a month.
The series kicks off this week with a super Saturday – France host Australia at the Stade de France, England and Fiji clash at Twickenham, Wales take on Argentina at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium and the green teams, Ireland and South Africa, meet at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium.
After dominating the Rugby Championship, the All Blacks had a blip with a draw against the Wallabies in the third Bledisloe match and will expect to dominate.
But coach Steve Hansen isn’t taking anything for granted, saying northern hemisphere tours “always bring unique challenges” and “big occasions”.
Despite disappointing form over the southern winter, the Wallabies are aiming for four wins in four games to send off captain Nathan Sharpe on a high.