Union

As a rugby union player, no one questioned David Pocock’s dedication to his sport. It soon became apparent the Zimbabwean-born Wallaby brought the same fierce commitment to other causes close to his heart. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

David Pocock’s duelling loyalties

David Pocock at a climate change rally outside Parliament House, Canberra, last year.
David Pocock at a climate change rally outside Parliament House, Canberra, last year.
Credit: AAP / Mick Tsikas

In the hamlet of Maules Creek, nestled in the foothills of Mount Kaputar National Park almost 500 kilometres north of Sydney, protesters first gathered in January 2014 to thwart – or at least noisily object to – Whitehaven Coal’s development of an open mine. Activists, including local farmers, periodically chained themselves to access points and giant mining equipment. Police spent hours unbinding them. Arrests were made. And Whitehaven shrugged: “Protests are a nuisance, mostly for the police, but they will not deter Whitehaven from getting on with building Maules Creek and delivering substantial benefits to the region,” a spokesperson for the company said in January 2014, when work began clearing sections of the state forest for the coalmine.

By November that year, protesters had very marginally slowed what was the inexorable development of the pit mine. But, they argued, their protests had the benefit of drawing attention to what they felt was a project unjustifiably destructive to the climate, the local habitat and the local water table.

Wallabies and Brumbies flanker David Pocock agreed. Pocock had grown up on a farm in his native Zimbabwe, and now holds a master’s in sustainable agriculture. Alongside rugby, conservation had long been a passion, and an early dream of his was to become a park ranger. So, in November that year he drove the 650 kilometres to Maules Creek with his now wife, Emma, from their home in Canberra. With local farmer Rick Laird, Pocock chained himself to a massive coal digger. It was half a day before police cut them from the equipment and arrested them.

“I knew it was going to be polarising, standing up for farmers and getting arrested alongside someone like Rick Laird, who – that was also the first time he’d ever been arrested,” Pocock says. “He’s a really well-respected member of the community, the head of the local Rural Fire Service, his family has been farming in that area five generations. This was not something that he had ever thought he would need to do. But I guess for both of us, it was just personally taking a stand on something that we thought wasn’t right. I don’t think we should be building coalmines in our food bowl, building coalmines in the middle of an endangered ecosystem, given what we know and how much of an opportunity the transition to renewables is.

“I knew that you’re gonna get the range of responses. Some people being supportive, others not understanding it or just being dead against it. And you know, professional sport is big business. And it was rocking the boat. And I guess the hardest part about it was knowing that it would be uncomfortable for some of my teammates. But I guess this was something personal and something that I really felt like I needed to do.”

Naturally, there was plenty of media attention. But more urgently, there was also training to get to with his Super Rugby club, the Brumbies. Pocock was released from custody just before midnight. Training began at 7am. He just made it. But the game’s administrators weren’t thrilled.   

“While we appreciate David has personal views on a range of matters, we’ve made it clear that we expect his priority to be ensuring he can fulfil his role as a high-performance athlete,” the Australian Rugby Union warned at the time.

This corporately bland, but self-satisfied admonishment was hilarious in its obliviousness to the fact Pocock could fulfil both “roles” with impressively equal commitment. I mean, consider: Pocock chained himself to a giant coal digger for 10 hours, was placed in a cell for a few hours more, then, upon release, drove through the night, punctually made training and, not having slept, slayed on the pitch. “I’m not sure how long he drove for and how much sleep he had, but he certainly turned up and, yes, he was our best trainer on the day,” Pocock’s Brumbies coach, Stephen Larkham, told media afterwards. “It doesn’t matter what else he’s done prior to the training session or through the week, he’ll turn up and train for you or play for you at 100 per cent.”

Today, David Pocock is running to represent the ACT in the federal senate, and this rare energy and ability to honour duelling loyalties might suggest the basis of a strong political pitch – but it hasn’t. Pocock isn’t a self-aggrandising man, and I suspect the thought of baldly promoting this virtue is discomforting. Perhaps he feels that broadcasting it, transforming it into a conspicuous public ribbon, degrades it. But if character is revealed in action, those 24 hours form an impressive moral résumé. Say what you like about Pocock, but the man is not a flake.    

 

David Pocock’s family emigrated to Brisbane in 2002, when he was 13 years old. They had been run off their farm in Robert Mugabe’s violent land redistribution program, which had begun two years earlier. Mugabe framed the redistribution of agricultural land as necessary redress for colonial theft – in 1980, when Zimbabwe became independent of Britain and Mugabe became leader, whites comprised only 5 per cent of the population, and yet owned three-quarters of the country’s farms.

But the righteousness of Mugabe’s justification was undermined by graft, murder and mass disorder. Paramilitary squads killed farmers, the most attractive farms were given to friends, family and supporters, and the sudden expulsion of white farmers triggered near-famine and severe economic dysfunction. More intimately, the Pococks knew some of those who were murdered. David’s younger brother Steve would later write about an older neighbour, Ian, who was 20 and who the Pocock boys “looked up to and admired”. One day, while driving back to his farm with his father, Ian’s ute was ambushed and sprayed with bullets. Ian’s father died. Ian was shot multiple times but survived. “As an eight-year-old, I stood by Ian’s hospital bed as he recovered and later, we visited him on their farm,” Steve wrote. The boys also snuck a look at the ute, which was dramatically marked with bullets.

“As a kid, I’d never thought that my family would ever leave Zimbabwe,” David Pocock says. “I loved it. It was home. I look back and I’m so grateful for the childhood that I did have growing up on a farm. But that all changed very quickly.”

The Pococks were beneficiaries of skilled migrant visas – their mother, Jane, had a teaching degree – but David says that, knowing most of his mates wouldn’t have the same opportunity, he arrived with a sense of guilt. His brother Steve arrived with a sense of trauma and was soon hospitalised. All of his family migrated with the heavy, strangely mixed sense of relief, loss, bitterness and disorientation that comes from being settled as a sudden exile from your own country.

“I guess my family all dealt with it in different ways,” Pocock says. “I threw myself into sport. And that was how, you know, when you were playing sport, it didn’t matter what your accent was, or where you were from, you were part of the team, and if you’re contributing, people wanted you on that team. So that was really a place that I kind of went to and invested a lot of energy, and I think it was how I made friends and felt like I belonged to a team or a small community.”

“Invested energy” is an understatement. If sport was a form of social assimilation for Pocock, it was also the place where he channelled his obsessiveness and tried to purge his anxiety. As a teenager, his father would find him in his bedroom, late at night, performing his 400th crunch or sit-up. It struck his father as unhealthy.

At 17, Pocock left his family for Perth when he signed a contract with Western Force in the Super Rugby league. At 19, just six years after arriving in Australia, he debuted for the Wallabies against the All Blacks in Hong Kong. “I remember sitting on the bench watching and it felt a little bit surreal to be sitting there with the Wallabies,” Pocock remembers. “I only ended up getting on for the last seven or eight minutes, and I think it only really sunk in when you’re in the change room afterwards and you’re looking around, and your rugby heroes being there. You’ve got George Smith, Nathan Sharpe, Matt Giteau. You know, people that you’ve looked up to the whole way through high school and now you’ve just played alongside them and represented a country that you love.”

Pocock’s debut was a surreal moment for a teenager who had emigrated only half-a-dozen years earlier. And he was certain that he wouldn’t squander the opportunity. 

This is part one of a two-part series. Read part two: David Pocock’s next battleground

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 23, 2022 as "Looking to convert".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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