EXCLUSIVE: Former Australia captain Pocock continues to battle racism

EXCLUSIVE: Can David Pocock solve politics’ image problem? The former Australia captain put his body on the line on the pitch, but now he’s a politician battling racism and climate-change sceptics

  • David Pocock says climate change is ‘a thorny issue’ within rugby to this day 
  • Pocock is a former Australia captain turned politician after retiring in late 2020 
  • The 34-year-old met to talk about the existence of racism in the sport 
  • Pocock made reference to Luther Burrell’s recent personal admissions  

It is 11am in the Parliamentary Office in Sydney and David Pocock’s aides have blocked out an hour from his diary. He has a busy day ahead, including an integrity commission with the Attorney General and a series of briefings. 

The diplomatic vehicle in the underground carpark – a white BMW with the Australian flag on the bonnet, surrounded by guards – is a sign that the prime-minister is also in the building. The Protective Service have double security checks to get inside and Pocock is waiting in his office on the 20th floor. Welcome to the new world of the former Wallaby captain – or Senator Pocock as he is now known.

He has swapped the gold jersey for a crisp white shirt. A few kilos of muscle have dropped off since his retirement in 2020 but he still looks fit enough to last 80 minutes. ‘The parliamentary rugby team have been trying to rope me in,’ he says. ‘I might have to go and find a pair of boots!’

Former Australia rugby captain David Pocock has turned to a political life after retiring

Pocock made 78 appearances for the Wallabies across a nine-year international career span

An easy gag about tackling Boris Johnson is laughed off, and he asks about the mood back in the UK as 10 Downing Street is beamed across news briefings around the city. There are bigger issues to discuss but first Pocock reflects on the England series so far and mulls over what Eddie Jones has up his sleeve.

‘This is the first year that I’ve actually started to enjoy watching rugby again,’ he says. ‘For a couple of years, I couldn’t really watch because I’d get annoyed if the commentators were bagging my old team-mates. I know how hard they work. It was too close to home. I watched the first Test on TV and it was good to see the Wallabies win because against England it’s been one-way traffic for a while.’

Just 34 years old, Pocock’s political career has progressed quickly. He was an activist during his playing days. In 2014 he was arrested after chaining himself to a digger in protest against a new coalmine. He also publicly declared that he would not marry his partner, Emma, until same-sex marriage was legalised in Australia. There was always a political streak in his blood, but how has he ended up sitting here, in one of the most powerful seats in the country?

‘Good question! Growing up in Zimbabwe, I saw how much of an impact politics has on every part of our lives. The land reform programme started and we were kicked off our farm. It was pretty unsafe. Very few people would argue that land reform was unnecessary, but the way it was done was farcical. 

‘A couple of guys in our district were killed. We were lucky my mum was a qualified teacher and we were able to get into Australia as skilled migrants. I arrived in in Brisbane in 2002 as a 14-year-old. In Zimbabwe politics was the only thing people talked about because everyone was affected by it. I was always aware of it and interested in it.

The 34-year-old says that he now spends his time battling racism and climate-change denies

‘More recently, I’d been working on an agriculture and conservation project back in Zimbabwe. I had a bit of time on the side in 2020 and just threw myself into it, going out there with my younger brother. I kept getting hassled by people in Canberra, saying “We think there’s an opportunity for an independent candidate in the senate”. It had never been done before but they said they thought I was the right person. Initially I thought, “Politics? Nah”, but I thought about it. I love Australia and the opportunities it’s given me and when you love something you want to make it better. It felt like a long shot but I knew I would regret it if I didn’t do it. The complicated thing was forming a party with 1500 members. I’ve never been a part of a political party. It’s a pretty big ask but within two days we had 3000 members.’

As Johnson’s image streams across news bulletins throughout the city, I ask if he is conscious about the image problem facing politicians in the current climate. ‘That’s one of the tragedies of politics. People look at it and think, “This is a bunch of people without integrity who don’t have our best interests at heart and don’t make decisions that benefit everyday people”. Certainly here in Australia we’ve seen this movement of independent candidates who are aren’t part of a major party. Communities are realising that they don’t have to have someone who has to toe a party line.’

Pocock has been in the headlines this week for supporting the Labor party’s climate targets, ahead of a visit by Jacinda Ardern. Looking out from the window of the office, cars are clogging up the road on the Harbour Bridge in the distance. A few miles away, in the north-west suburbs, evacuation alerts have been put out because of extreme flooding. The effects of climate change are there for all to see and Pocock believes rugby can play its part in the resistance.

Pocock has been in the headlines this week for supporting the Labor party’s climate targets

‘The conversation around climate change is a thorny issue in rugby because it potentially upsets administrators who are fielding calls from sponsors. Here in Australia, over the last 5 or 10 years, there’s been a huge push by fossil fuel companies to get into sport. They know that they’re losing their social licence and, like we saw with tobacco, they see sport as a great way to stay in people’s mind. They present themselves as being part of the culture.

‘Eventually the public and government said you can’t be advertising tobacco because we know the harm it causes. We’re close approaching that point with the fossil fuel industry. I totally get the pressure that sports are under financially and the need for sponsorship dollars but there’s increasingly going to be a requirement to be a good corporate citizen.

‘It’s unprecedented, right? Everyone wishes this is a challenge that we didn’t have to deal with, but we do. Everyone has to play their part. In Australia, there’s way more demand for electric vehicles than suppliers can keep up with. It’s a six to 12 month wait. We’re at the end of the list for EVs because they get a credit for them in Europe. This is the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced as humans but it’s a challenge and an opportunity. It’s looking at the footprint around stadiums, how fans travel, scheduling of games. I know there’s a lot of work being done. Lords has solar now. Old sports grounds haven’t really had to think about it. There are huge economic opportunities for sporting clubs and businesses to save a lot of money. Team travel is dwarfed by fan travel so it’s about the game day thing of how fans are getting to and from events.’

Pocock says he ‘had 2 ACL reconstructions, five knee ops’ after injuries suffered in his career

The conversation moves onto racism, following Luther Burrell’s shocking revelations about dressing room ‘banter’ in the Mail on Sunday two weeks ago. Pocock has previously spoken out about rugby’s challenges around sexuality and he welcomes the conversation raised by Burrell.

‘I saw the article. You can’t discount people’s experiences. We’ve got to be listening. Moving to Australia as a white Zimbabwean, my experience in sport was completely different to a black Zimbabwean friend who moved over at a similar age. He also loved his rugby but he copped so much racism at school and in the rugby team. There was some venom in it from the opposition, but there was also what people refer to as “casual racism” within his own team. It affected him. We’ve got a long way to go.

‘I’ve always thought that sport is at its best when it’s actually getting out ahead and challenging people on these issues. Despite what people like to say about sports and politics not mixing, it’s got a long history of shining a light on the social issues we face. The important thing is that we actually have conversations about them. Whether you like it or not, athletes are a role model for young kids. If somebody brings up concerns about racism it isn’t just dismissed as somebody crying foul, we have to deal with it.’

On a more light-hearted note, the extent of Pocock’s parliamentary banter has been around the wardrobe for his election campaign. Not known for being a suit and tie guy, jokes flew around about him rotating between the same two shirts, with every photograph looking the same.

Pocock says ‘you can’t discount people’s experiences’ after reading Luther Burrell’s story 

Consistency was also a theme of his playing career. Brilliance and bravery was the baseline. Blood is streaming down his face in most of his old Wallaby photographs, usually after suffering a punishing blow whilst clamped over a ruck. Is his body now paying the price?

‘It definitely takes its toll. By the end, I’d had a bunch of injuries. Nothing too major but I got to a point where I felt like I’d got a lot out of rugby. My dream as a kid was to win a rugby world cup. I never did that but I played at a few and I loved it. I felt like I’d contributed a lot and I didn’t want to push it that bit extra.

‘I had 2 ACL reconstructions, five knee ops, split a disc in my back, one of my elbows is a bit funny, neck every now and then. The usual stuff. I’ve got things that will be there for the rest of my life but you just have to manage it. Keep the mobility up and keep the strength up or you might run into strife.

‘As a rugby player, you know that you’re putting yourself out there physically. You’re playing against big men and it takes its toll. I don’t think there’s any way to avoid that. It’s great to see the changes around head injuries. As a retired player, I’m really glad that’s being taken more seriously.’

Before he gets back to the new day job, he reflects a little more on his playing days. He recalls the 2015 World Cup and ending his career in Japan with Damian de Allende and Sam Whitelock. But there is not too long to dwell on the past. The Attorney General is waiting, after all.

Pocock says climate change ‘potentially upsets administrators’ which can affect sponsorships

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