Rugby | Wallabies an eclectic mix lead by Pocock

David Pocock (AP)

Teddington – The Australia squad heading into the Rugby World Cup final is an eclectic mix, described by coach Michael Cheika as “jokers, lovers, and fighters.”

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David Pocock, the Zimbabwe-born climate-change activist, nature lover, gay-rights supporter, and owner of chickens, may just be the biggest character of them all.

“We have a diverse range,” Stephen Moore, the Australia captain who was born in Saudi Arabia to Irish parents, said on Monday. “Some guys are cutting around on segways after the game and he (Pocock) is watching David Attenborough.”

Pocock is usually found at the bottom of a ruck, having made pinching opposition ball an art form. He’s the master of the turnover and causing chaos at the breakdown, and one of the biggest reasons why the Wallabies have made it through to play New Zealand in the trans-Tasman final at Twickenham on Saturday.

But there’s so much more to this piece of Australian granite.

Maybe the non-conformist in Pocock was shaped by his upbringing on a Zimbabwe farm in the 1990’s. He was there when his parents’ home was seized by the administration of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, and heard about local people who had been killed. It forced his family to emigrate — and Australia was the destination.

Rugby soon entered his life, but he makes sure it doesn’t define him.

Pocock is a patron of “SAVE African Rhino Foundation.” He is the co-founder of Eightytwenty Vision , a non-profit organization that assists communities in Zimbabwe in becoming self-sufficient. He says that he and his partner, Emma, will not wed until there are equal marriage rights for gay people in Australia, and complained to a referee during the Super Rugby season about anti-gay abuse from an opponent.

When it comes to his off-the-field antics, Pocock is perhaps most famous for an incident last year when he was arrested after chaining himself to a super-digger machine during a protest against a coal mine being constructed in a state forest in northern New South Wales.

He had never previously participated in non-violent direct action, concerned about the impact on his rugby career, but chose to act “to further the conversation about climate change and engage more people in helping to shape what is all of our futures.”

“David is a really interesting character,” Cheika said on Monday. “Away from the game, he’s very interesting to talk to, his thoughts and evolution as a person and player. One of the big things for us, as well, is growing up off the field, maturing.

“I really like to have lots of different characters in teams, people who think differently about everything.”

Cheika is a son of Lebanese immigrants who arrived in Australia in the 1950’s. There are Wallaby players with ancestry in Tonga (fullback Israel Folau) and Papua New Guinea (scrumhalf Will Genia), while centre Tevita Kuridrani was born in Fiji.

“People have come from all different lands and origins,” Cheika said. “I won’t say we’ve got the extreme right, but we’ve got the extreme left and centre right in the way we think.”

Cheika has had barely a year in charge of the Wallabies but he has managed to get this random bunch of players working toward one common goal — success at the Rugby World Cup.

Pocock remains the driving force in the team. He has recovered from two knee reconstructions, in 2013 and 2014, that threatened to end his career and is back to his best at the World Cup, where he has been among the tournament’s best players.

His 14 turnovers are a tournament-high, five more than the next best. He didn’t play against Scotland in the quarterfinals because of injury, and Australia required a contentiously awarded penalty kick in the final minute to win 35-34.

Pocock’s back-row combination with flanker Michael Hooper — nicknamed “Pooper” in rugby circles — is the biggest threat to the New Zealand’s chances of becoming the first team to retain the World Cup title. And the All Blacks know all about that pair, which played together for the first time at international level in Australia’s 27-19 win over New Zealand in the Rugby Championship’s deciding game in August.

The Wallabies need Pocock to pull off another big-game performance, this time on the highest stage of all.

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