David Pocock is planning a dinner party. The guest list is already proving a toilsome task when he realises he is allowed to invite the dead along with the living. “How many people are we talking?” he ventures. “This could be epic.” After careful contemplation, he lands on Mahatma Gandhi. “Gandhi would be pretty weird to have there,” he tells Guardian Australia. “Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X.”
Also present at the hypothetical soiree is American comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan, several musicians, David Attenborough and the late African conservation visionary Garth Owen-Smith. “Then you need a few real mad people.” Donald Trump? Boris Johnson? “Oh hell no, not that kind of mad. More like a good human with a bit of a glint in their eye.”
This party has KeepCups and general wholesomeness written all over it. And for one hosted by a former Wallabies captain and perhaps the world’s most exceptional defensive openside flanker, it is strikingly scant on fellow sportspeople. Pocock, after all, quaffs more existential stuff.
It is no shock the 32-year-old has called time on his 15-year professional career. At the conclusion of the 2019 Super Rugby season, the two-time John Eales medallist and three-time world player of the year nominee left the Brumbies, his home for the seven years following his seven at Western Force. Last year’s humbling World Cup quarter-final exit to England marked his 83rd and final Test after 11 years in the gold jumper. He saw out the 2019-20 season in Ōta with the Panasonic Wild Knights, but has opted not to return to the Japanese Top League.
What comes next is less surprising still. The long-time climate crusader’s full-time foray into conservation was solidified during his 2017 sabbatical, but can be traced back to his childhood on a farm in birth country the country of his birth, Zimbabwe. Obsessed with birds and animals, a 10-year-old Pocock wrote to National Geographic Magazine to take issue with an article on cheetahs.
“My argument was they couldn’t be a true cat because they couldn’t retract their claws,” he says. “Months and months later this letter arrived in the middle of Zimbabwe with this little package full of information on cheetahs and a note from someone at National Geographic. I was so pumped. That’s where it started. Having said that, we were super conventional farmers. We used so many chemicals and inputs and all the rest.”
Those practices were a product of their time. Since his family fled Gweru at the height of Robert Mugabe’s farm invasions, Pocock has been pressing for a paradigm shift from policy-makers, farmers and everyday people.
The pitch sounds fantastical, but he is not one for reductive tokenism. He and wife Emma are overseeing the Rangelands Restoration Trust, an endeavour aimed at regenerating degraded rangelands and increasing biodiversity. Its first project is a 70,000-hectare wildlife area in southern Zimbabwe surrounded by communal land.
Discussions are being had about expanding to work with communities on livestock management. Coronavirus is making logistics and funding difficult but Pocock, who has almost completed his Master of Sustainable Agriculture, hopes to travel to Zimbabwe early next year.
It is almost six years ago that a 26-year-old Pocock was arrested for chaining himself to a tractor in protest over the opening of the Maules Creek coal mine in northern New South Wales. Today the fire burns just as bright.
“But, like all these really wicked problems, we need policy from the government that’s actually encouraging it. When you look at where we currently are with climate and biodiversity, we’ve got agriculture, which employs way more than coal mining, yet the coal miners are getting $12bn a year in subsidies.”
Kevin Rudd’s name pops up, and there is an alignment with the former Australian prime minister’s environmental vision and grave concerns about a concentrated media landscape. “You look at climate reporting and just how urgent it is. In terms of news on the climate and on the environment, if you picked up most newspapers you wouldn’t know we’re a world leader in extinction and not looking after a whole bunch of endangered species.”
After all, “humans evolved in nature, but the Facebook algorithm has us”. Even with 136,000 Twitter followers, there is a love-hate relationship with social media, an inability to tell whether he is driving real engagement or “fuelling recreational outrage”. “Are they echo chambers or just horrendous vitriol?” he asks. “People follow me on social media because of rugby. It’s finding ways to connect on other things that will be the challenge.”
Shouldering the dual role of high-profile athlete and activist requires careful navigation. For some, public moral conviction is a conversation-starter – a critical vessel to change. For others, the scrutiny that generates is too much. It is a friction stemming from the inseparability of sport and politics, an arena in which an athlete’s obligations are ill-defined, and often personal. A player’s very presence on a field – or absence from it – can be a protest.
The message, as Pocock well knows, is vulnerable to getting lost in unsavoury tit for tat. In 2015, having pledged not to wed Emma until gay marriage was made legal (they did so in December 2018), the Brumbies vice-captain called out Waratahs forward Jacques Potgieter for twice calling two teammates “faggot” during a Super Rugby match. He complained to the referee, then received heavy criticism for causing a drama. After a Sanzar investigation, Potgieter apologised. Pocock commended him for it.
Last year, in the midst of the Israel Folau “hell awaits” gay people saga, he openly pointed the finger at his Wallabies colleague for using his platform in an “incredibly disappointing” way. Every word, though, is tactful. Pocock has never forced his views onto fellow players, nor aimed to disrupt their focus.
This remained the case throughout this week, when a conversation about taking a knee before the third Bledisloe Cup Test in support of Black Lives Matter generated controversy. Pocock kept his counsel, wary of disrupting the Wallabies’ preparations and cognisant of giving a playing group he left only recently space to speak for themselves.
Indeed, the end of the Pocock era has heralded an inevitable rebuild. A loyal Michael Cheika supporter quick to defend his outgoing coach from post-World Cup “pot-shots”, he is optimistic about Dave Rennie’s brave new world.
“From what I hear, guys in camp are very happy and enjoying it, and I think that’s shown in the last couple of performances,” he says. “Early days, but I’m really looking forward to watching a whole new bunch of Wallabies get an opportunity and hopefully build something over the next four years … he really seems to be picking guys on form and has given a bunch of young guys a crack who played really well through Super Rugby AU. That’s really exciting. I remember in 2008 getting my opportunity as a 20-year-old. Robbie Deans was kind of the same – he was willing to give guys a crack.”
Not that Pocock is all that inclined to revisit the past – his Wallabies debut, that coming-of-age 2011 World Cup quarter-final display against South Africa, for whom he had once dreamed of playing, and the knee reconstructions that headlined a litany of injuries. Or of having wanted to play at a World Cup since watching the 1995 tournament as a kid on his grandfather’s farm and then playing in three, and of the ultimate disappointment that accompanied each exit.
“How many people have helped me get to where I’ve got? It just rams home how much of a myth personal achievement is,” he says. Such sentiments characterise a deep thinker from way back.
Pocock is remarkably mild-mannered for a specimen of such physicality his teammates affectionately called him “Bam Bam”. Nuggety as a wombat, the 115kg, 184cm package is protein powder personified. In recent months the training has been toned down from “fit” to “active”, though that still involves meeting mates to lift and carry big rocks up grassy hills by the Murrumbidgee River. Beneath the brawn is a self-confessed “introvert”. Emma, he says, prefers the word “cagey”. “I’ve got a lot more comfortable just being a bit weird and different.”
There are examples. At a pre-2019 World Cup camp in New Caledonia, Wallabies team manager Patrick Molihan found Pocock halfway up a tree buried in a book. “An enormous one that has the roots going into the ground and is super easy to climb. This is super cliched, but I think it might have even been The Overstory that I took on that trip. He [Molihan] took a photo and sent it to management, so they were all giving me shit about it.
“Emma gives me crap because I’ve never read or watched Harry Potter, I’ve never seen Game of Thrones. When it comes to pop culture I’m useless. I’m the worst pub quiz person you could possibly want on your team, unless the question is like, ‘what’s the world’s highest waterfall?’” Pocock does know music, having discovered Triple J on arrival in Australia as a 14-year-old. For a country where “taxpayers fund a lot of dumb stuff”, the socially aware youth station offered everything a Christian upbringing did not.
He would no longer call himself religious, and the marriage equality issue has “caused some strife with relatives”. “People have been reading the Bible a certain way for a long time, and to talk about love and inclusivity is challenging to some people. But that’s really changing. People are starting to see just how valid and human different relationships are. It’s very hard to hate people when you actually get to know them.”
For this reason people have been at the heart of Pocock’s philanthropy. In the past he has worked more directly on community development, focusing solely on livelihoods and education, health and infrastructure. In the future, he has not ruled out politics.
“Right now I’ve decided to try and spend my time addressing some of the underlying issues keeping communities in that sort of state where you are really struggling just to feed your family, let alone make a living off the land,” he says. “Their lives are totally dependent on it.”