Pocock an enigma wrapped in a riddle

The Rugby Championship

Back in June the Australian Rugby public collectively held their breath. It was late in the first Test against England in Brisbane and star flanker David Pocock was seen heading down the tunnel.

Fans and fellow players alike were desperately hoping it was not a recurrence of the two crippling anterior cruciate ligament injuries that ruled the 28-year-old out of the entire 2013 and 2014 seasons.

David Pocock returns to the Test field on Saturday night. Photo: ARU Media/Stu WalmsleyIn the end the injury, a fracture to his eye-socket, kept Pocock out for just six weeks and he was able to return to the Brumbies for the Super Rugby quarter-finals against the Highlanders. Unfortunately, Pocock’s presence was not enough as the ACT side went down narrowly 15-9 to the 2015 champions.

But Australian fans will be glad to see the 2015 World Rugby Player-of-the-Year nominee run out in gold tonight due to one simple fact: the Wallabies win more often when Pocock is on the field.

Since the rugged fetcher made his Test debut, co-incidentally against tonight’s opponents in Hong Kong in 2008, the Wallabies have played 106 Tests, for 59 wins, 44 losses and three draws at a winning percentage of 57.07 percent. Pocock has played 56 of those Tests with the Wallabies winning 35, losing 20 and drawing one, with the win percentage rising to 63.39 percent.

In the 50 Tests that Pocock has missed the Wallabies have lost 24, won 24 and drawn two with the winning percentage dipping to just 48 percent. Put simply the Wallabies are a 15 percent better team when Pocock is playing. Statistically, that’s a massive contribution from just one player.

Pocock was sorely missed in the latter stages of the Cook Cup as Australia slumped to a shock 3-0 series loss to Eddie Jones’ England. The whitewash was enough to cast a dark cloud over Australian Rugby, accentuated by the fact that Australia was not represented in the Super Rugby semi-finals for the first time in four years. But according to Pocock the run of results has not left any lingering mark.

“While the England series was disappointing no one is low on confidence,” he states firmly. “Every time you put on a Wallabies jersey you’re confident you can win. We wouldn’t go into any match thinking otherwise.”

Pocock also says he isn’t reading anything into the hammering Australian teams took at the hands of New Zealand teams in Super Rugby this year. In total there were 26 matches played between teams from both nations with New Zealand teams winning 22, one drawn and Australian teams winning just three – one each by the Reds, Waratahs and the Brumbies, whom opened their campaign with a 52-10 slaughter of eventual champions, the Hurricanes. How long ago that now seems.

David Pocock is prepared for the Bledisloe. Photo: ARU Media/Stu WalmsleyAdding further salt to the wound, 13 of those 22 wins by Kiwi sides were by more than 13 points.

“I don’t think so,” says Pocock when asked if Super Rugby form will affect the Bledisloe. “Full credit to the New Zealand teams, they had a great year. That said, this Wallabies team has a lot of strengths and I think form goes out the window when it comes to any Bledisloe Cup match. It just comes down to who wants it more.”

There is no doubt that after 13 long years the Wallabies are desperate to get the Bledisloe Cup back but New Zealand are just as desperate to retain it. With a host of legendary players like Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Tony Woodcock, Ma’a Nonu and Keven Mealamu calling it a day after last year’s Rugby World Cup, many predicted a dip in the All Blacks’ performance. But as they showed in their comprehensive series victory over Wales in June, they are as strong as ever.

Pocock puts that down to their “great development program . . . which is churning out elite player after elite player.”

Tonight is the 17th time Pocock has run out against the All Blacks. In the 16 matches to date, there have been three wins and 13 losses. The wins have come in Hong Kong in 2010 (26-24), Brisbane in 2011 (25-20) and, in a positive omen, last year here in Sydney (27-19). Pocock is confident the Wallabies can repeat that result tonight.

“I think our preparation has been great for both the Bledisloe and Cook Cup,” he says. “There’s obviously things we want to change from the England series but we’re confident of strong performances no matter which team we play.”

One aspect of the Wallabies play that must be improved is their accuracy at the breakdown, somewhere Pocock was sorely missed during the Cook Cup.

“I think England were very well prepared for the Test series against us,” explains Pocock. “And full credit to Eddie Jones and his coaching staff for that. The breakdown has become a key part of the game and whichever team is able to take control there is generally going to be hard to beat.”

The Wallabies will be glad to re-unite the Pocock-Scott Fardy combination that has been effective at both Super Rugby and Test level.

“Scott has great vision and game awareness and I think our games are quite similar,” agrees Pocock. “He’s very vocal which helps me around the field. Playing together at the Brumbies definitely helps with continuity on the field for both of us.”

But will it be enough for the Wallabies to claim back the Rugby Championship, which they won for the first time last year since Argentina were added to the expanded tournament in 2012?

“It’s definitely the goal,” says Pocock, acknowledging the fast improving Pumas. “All of the teams are strong this year. It’s going to take a huge effort.”

That effort will be much more formidable with Pocock at the coal-face, something that didn’t look totally assured at the start of 2016, when rumours began circulating that Pocock was about to throw in the towel.

He had already recovered from two near career ending knee injuries (one to either leg) and the toll on his body was there for all to see. One day, he mused out loud, with so many black eyes and broken noses, even his partner Emma might not be able to recognize him. In the end he decided just to take a six-month sabbatical.

After the end of season tour this year he will link with former Wallabies coach Robbie Deans, and team mate Berrick Barnes, at Panasonic Wild Knights in Japan. From February to August 2017 he will then take a break from Rugby to further his studies before resuming again with the Wild Knights.

He will then return to the Brumbies for the 2018 and 2019 Super Rugby campaigns before completing his three-year agreement with the Wild Knights after RWC 2019.

It’s a unique deal, nutted out with the help of the ARU. But as anybody who has followed his life and career knows, there is a lot about Pocock that is unique.

When his Wallabies team-mates were enjoying some well-deserved R and R after last year’s RWC, Pocock headed to Zimbabwe, the land of his birth, to spend time on his Eighty-Twenty Vision charity and get in some pre-season training!

“It was great to get away from Rugby and spend time with family,” says Pocock. “It was the first time my whole family had been back in Zimbabwe since 2002, so that was special, all being over there for my grandfather’s 80th. We spent time with cousins and friends in Zimbabwe.

“Em and I also got to do a bit of travel. We went to Cape Town for Pat McCabe's wedding, spent some time in the south eastern lowveld of Zimbabwe visiting a conservancy that SAVE African Rhino Foundation supports - I'm a patron of theirs - and even getting up to Kenya for the first time and learning about some of the community conservation initiatives that are happening on Lewa and Ol Pejeta.”

Just your normal Pocock itinerary.

As for the training he joined the Malilangwe scouts, who he describes as “the men at the forefront of the effort to protect rhino.”

“I only did training in the morning,” he explains. “I did a six kilometre run and a weights circuit.” What Pocock neglects to mention is that part of that run was carrying one of the scouts over his shoulder!

“Physically and mentally by the end of the World Cup I was cooked,” he admits. “Finding a space away from home to physically and mentally get away from the game and freshen up  was great. It’s my 11th season now and I’m still enjoying it.”

Let’s hope he’s enjoying it even more come full time tonight.

Bledisloe progam.

Get your monster 148 page souvenir Bledisloe program ON SALE at ANZ Stadium on Game day. Featuring Wallaby players David Pocock and Matt Giteau and everything you need to know about the Wallabies v All Blacks Rugby Championship opener you won’t want to miss out on this collector’s item. For orders contact editor on 92639713