SYDNEY, Sept 13 (Reuters) - Light on match practice and heading for retirement, David Pocock nevertheless remains a key player for Australia and is determined to make the most of what will be his third and final World Cup.
A semi-finalist in 2011 and a finalist four years later in England, the openside flanker has been in and out of the team since, with a year-long sabbatical and a string of injuries limiting his contribution as the Wallabies struggled.
A solid 58-minute outing in Australia’s final warmup match against Samoa removed any doubts about his fitness, however, and the Zimbabwe-born 31-year-old packed his trademark grey scrum cap and headed off to Japan.
“You grow up as a kid watching the World Cup, dreaming of playing there and to get a third opportunity, I’m very excited,” Pocock told Reuters after his place in the squad was confirmed.
“As a young player it’s difficult to imagine the end and then, all of a sudden, you get to a point where you know that the end of your career’s coming up, and you want to make sure you make the most of all your opportunities.”
At his peak, Pocock was an unrivalled operator at the breakdown but the battering his body has taken as rival forwards try to smash, wrestle or neck-roll him off the ball has taken its toll.
Knee surgery in 2013 and 2014 was followed by a debilitating neck problem in 2018 before what was described as a “rare” calf injury sidelined him for six months from early March this year.
Pocock admitted it had been a frustrating season.
“It has been, it hasn’t been the year that I’d hoped for but I guess I’ve got the opportunity to finish it well and I’m going to be doing everything I can to do that,” he said.
“I want to be playing my best rugby, that’s the challenge after a year of not playing much rugby, to be able to step up.”
Pocock’s famous work ethic meant that even when he was not able to train fully, he was doing everything he could to prepare himself for his return.
“You are trying to use the rehab to build momentum, practise the skills that you can do and visualisation, stuff like that,” he added.
“Really, you’re trying to get to the point that when you do play again, you don’t feel like you’ve been out a long time because every week you’ve been improving and working.”
Pocock said he did not watch much rugby while in rehab and preferred to take himself to a “different head space” with some reading.
One subject he was not interested in reading about, though, was the media debate over where he would play on his return to the Wallabies.
He linked up with captain and fellow openside Michael Hooper in the number eight shirt at the 2015 World Cup, and there has been much discussion over whether coach Michael Cheika will reprise the formation in Japan.
“As players, you play anywhere — well, maybe not the front row — you’d play anywhere to pull on that jersey,” Pocock said.
“It definitely does change (my game) a bit, but there’s other parts of your game where you just do your thing. I don’t know what (the coaches) are thinking. We’ll just see what they come up with.”
Doing his own thing for Pocock since he made his test debut against New Zealand in 2008 has often meant positioning himself over a tackled player with his muscular arms locked on the ball.
With possession so important in the modern game, ball-poaching is a much coveted skill and Pocock has worked hard at perfecting the art.
“There’s been huge changes at the tackle and ruck area,” he said.
“The challenge as a player is to know the rules really well and train to maximise your opportunities.” (Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Ian Ransom)