September 4, 2015 / 2:01 AM / 2 years ago

Rugby-Popeye poacher Pocock takes a stand for Australia

SYDNEY, Sept 4 (Reuters) - Australia’s David Pocock was widely considered the heir apparent to Richie McCaw as the best openside flanker in the world before successive knee injuries robbed him of the best part of the 2013 and 2014 seasons.

Back in the gold of the Wallabies this season, Pocock has done enough to suggest that he will still be in line to land the title of “finest fetcher” if, as expected, the All Blacks captain retires after the World Cup.

Pocock’s brilliant form initially presented Wallabies coach Michael Cheika with a dilemma. Could he really dump another of his best forwards, his Waratahs and Wallabies captain of last year, Michael Hooper?

After alternating the two players on the bench, Cheika resolved the problem in early August by starting both in a gamble that paid off with a first victory over New Zealand in four years.

Although Pocock wore the number eight shirt that day in Sydney, the 27-year-old is more of a traditional number seven than former centre Hooper.

Everybody and his dog agrees that the breakdown is the key area of the modern test match and that is Pocock’s domain.

An opponent goes down in the tackle and there is Pocock, his legs set firm, his upper body resisting the clear-out attempts and his hands gripping tightly onto the ball until his opponent releases it or is penalised for not doing so.

All the while, he has to be aware of the idiosyncrasies of the refereeing in one of the most contentious areas of play.

It is a position that requires brains and brawn and Pocock has plenty of both.

He also bucks the traditional stereotype of the rugby player.

He runs a charitable foundation that works on aiding self-sufficiency in poverty stricken areas of Zimbabwe, where he was born and raised, and is an advocate for a variety of causes from same-sex marriage to the environment.

Direct action over the destruction of a national forest for a coal mine led to Pocock’s arrest last November after he chained himself to a digger.

He again hit the headlines earlier this year when he reported New South Wales Waratahs forward Jacques Potgeiter to the referee after the South African used a homophobic slur on the pitch.

His principled stand then echoed his uncompromising attitude to the game and, if the Popeye-like muscularity of his upper torso is anything to go by, his gym work.

Pocock displaced George Smith as openside in his first season of test rugby in 2009 and was closing in on 50 caps before his enforced spell on the sidelines.

At the 2011 World Cup, his late withdrawal with a back injury presaged the defeat by Ireland in a crucial pool match that sent the Wallabies into the harder side of the draw.

He returned with a quite brilliant performance that did a large part to get his side past the Springboks in the quarter-final, but was powerless to stop the All Blacks in the semis.

And Australian rugby fans will always wonder how the 2013 British and Irish Lions series, won by the tourists, would have gone had Pocock been fit. (Editing by Mitch Phillips)

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