RPT-INTERVIEW-Rugby-Pocock eager to make his mark off the field

Wed Feb 22, 2012 3:02pm GMT

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(Repeats interview first moved at 1000GMT)

By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE Feb 22 (Reuters) - A child of evicted Zimbabwean farmers, David Pocock arrived in Australia with a few suitcases and a broken dream to play rugby for South Africa, a refugee from the violent and chaotic land grabs overseen by president Robert Mugabe at the turn of the century.

A decade on, the curly-haired 23-year-old delights in returning to the strife-torn country his family fled, where he helps develop poverty-stricken communities in which his exploits as Australia flanker are virtually unknown.

The charity EightyTwenty Vision he founded with his friend Luke O'Keefe in 2009 focuses on lifting living standards of two wards in Nkayi, a rural centre of some 120,000 people in western Zimbabwe's Matabeleland North province.

The communities, like many in landlocked Zimbabwe, have suffered under Mugabe's tumultuous regime and remain vulnerable to food shortages, malnutrition and the spread of HIV.

"In the grand scheme of things, our work is very small but the results we've seen so far are very encouraging," Pocock told Reuters in an interview.

"On the ground things are beginning to improve for the community. Most noticeably, there's a sense that things are starting to happen and there is hope.

"The community is starting to use its own initiative, whereas in the past, given the political and economic situation, it was very easy to feel there was not too much light at the end of the tunnel."

Pocock, born in Gweru, capital of neighbouring Midlands province, remembers the turmoil of his last years in Zimbabwe vividly.

The economic anarchy that saw white farmers evicted from their lands, often by marauding mobs claiming to be civil war victims demanding compensation, engulfed the Pocock family and led to the deaths of neighbours.

"Our land was acquired by the government," said Pocock, who arrived in Brisbane at the age of 14, with his family, 10 or 12 suitcases and "not much else".

"Once we moved off the farm we lived in town for about a year but really farming was our livelihood and mum and dad didn't really want to do anything else, so we decided to leave.

"There were a couple of farmers in the area that were killed and I guess there was a lot of lawlessness, violence and intimidation. The vast majority was directed toward farm workers but there were a few white farmers targeted."

ROLE MODEL

His father worked odd jobs to get the family back on their feet in Brisbane and Pocock was awarded a sports scholarship to Anglican Church Grammar, a renowned breeding ground for elite rugby players, where he played in the school's first 15 with Wallabies flyhalf Quade Cooper.

The softly-spoken Pocock, remains something of an anomaly among the richly talented band of Wallabies youngsters, and keeps a lower profile than some of his team mates who have struggled to balance responsibility with the trappings of celebrity.

New Zealand-born Cooper was charged with burglary over the theft of laptops from a residence in the Gold Coast in 2009, while fellow Wallabies backs James O'Connor and Kurtley Beale have garnered media attention for off-field indiscipline.

Pocock is no darling of the tabloid editors, however, and has felt compelled to use his profile to make a difference.

"I think sport has a huge role to play in society in terms of trying to break down stereotypes in a whole range of social issues," he said

"You hear people say: 'I never chose to be a role model, I just want to play sport.' But just by being in the public and having a profile they are role models. I think with playing sport at an elite level comes that responsibility."

Pocock's bid to break down stereotypes has seen him take a stand on gay marriage, which remains illegal in Australia, though same sex couples have equal rights to heterosexuals under other areas of the law.

He and his wife Emma held a wedding ceremony in 2010 but have refused to register it until same-sex couples are permitted to marry.

"I heard someone saying that marriage has become a bit like a country club where they still don't accept blacks or Jews, it's sort of a fairly exclusive club," he said.

Pocock's personal integrity, along with his ball-poaching prowess at the breakdown, has seen him awarded the captaincy of Perth-based Super Rugby franchise Western Force in the southern hemisphere's provincial competition this year, taking over from long-serving lock Nathan Sharpe.

Pundits have touted the player as a future Wallabies captain, which would be welcomed by local rugby fans who have delighted in his unfulfilled Springboks dream.

"There's plenty to focus on before the Wallabies even get back together," said Pocock. "To captain your country is obviously a huge honour but there's a lot of responsibility ... It's not something I think about too much, to be honest."

(Editing by Patrick Johnston; To query or comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)

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