| GQ&A

AHEAD OF THIS YEAR’S RUGBY WORLD CUP, WE MEET A 27-YEAR-OLD SPORTS­MAN LIKE FEW OTH­ERS. A BEAST ON THE FIELD, A HU­MAN­I­TAR­IAN OFF IT, WE’RE PROUD TO PRESENT A MAN TACK­LING SO­CI­ETAL IS­SUES HEAD ON.

GQ (Australia) - - INSIDE GQ - WORDS MIKE CHRISTENSEN PHO­TOG­RA­PHY DAMIAN BEN­NETT

Wal­laby David Po­cock tack­les ho­mo­pho­bia in sport, cli­mate change and pol­i­tics head on.

When a footy player makes the tabloid head­lines, the rea­son is usu­ally not honourable. Drunk and dis­or­derly on a plane; em­broiled in a co­caine scan­dal; ar­rested for bur­glary. Or worse. And some se­ri­ally of­fend. En­ter rugby union’s David Po­cock, another who’s racked up col­umn inches for his off-feld an­tics. Ex­cept here, the head­lines are in­spi­ra­tional. ‘Re­fuses to wed girl­friend un­til gay friends have mar­riage equal­ity’; ‘Urges ath­letes to em­brace in­clu­sion af­ter ho­mo­pho­bia study’; ‘In Maules Creek mine protest’. Born into the tur­moil that was Robert Mu­gabe’s Zim­babwe, Po­cock nev­er­the­less de­scribes his up­bring­ing as “pretty priv­i­leged”. At least un­til 2002, when new leg­is­la­tion saw his fam­ily home tar­geted as one of the 2900 white, com­mer­cial farms to face evic­tion – the re­sult of a land seizure that reached an ugly cli­max. With neigh­bours of the same skin colour mur­dered in earshot, par­ents Andy and Jane de­cided to re­lo­cate then 14-year-old David, and younger broth­ers Mike and Steve, to Aus­tralia. Ten years later, Po­cock stood tall as the Wal­la­bies rugby cap­tain and a Young Aus­tralian of the Year fnal­ist, ow­ing to his phil­an­thropic work back in Zim­babwe. It was just the be­gin­ning. To­day, fol­low­ing more head­lines – ‘Mine protest case dis­missed’; ‘Po­cock should be ap­plauded for stand­ing up against ho­mo­pho­bia’, he texts ahead of his ar­rival, “Hi, just fnished train­ing. See you soon.” Nice and po­lite – no ab­bre­vi­a­tions, no emo­jis. The bell at the cafe’s en­trance does its job as some­one en­ters. We turn and see a man gen­tly clos­ing it, wary Can­berra’s late-af­ter­noon win­ter wind may slam it shut. It’s Po­cock. A frame as wide as the one he’s just squeezed through, he’s dressed in track­ies and a hoodie – well pre­sented but noth­ing fancy – sport­ing blades of grass and a week-old scab be­low his right eye. He smiles, puts down his phone and asks for some wa­ter. And so we be­gin.

GQ: Can you tell us a bit about your child­hood, about Zim­babwe? David Po­cock:

We lived on a farm 30km from a coun­try town called Gweru. Dad’s fam­ily had al­ways farmed around there and Mum’s farmed down near the South African boarder. In the ’80s there was a fair bit of vi­o­lence af­ter the end of the civil war but when I started school in 1994, as a white kid, it was a pretty charmed up­bring­ing. My school had black and white kids and the whole race thing was never re­ally an is­sue.

GQ: What hap­pened in the early noughties, when the coun­try’s sit­u­a­tion de­te­ri­o­rated? DP:

There was a vote on the new ref­er­en­dum and it was voted out. Af­ter that, the gov­ern­ment started to talk about land re­form and things started to re­ally es­ca­late.

GQ: Were you and your fam­ily ever in ac­tual dan­ger? DP:

A lot’s been made of white farm­ers be­ing in dan­ger and sure, two farm­ers in our area were killed – one we were good friends with ac­tu­ally. And that’s one of my clear­est mem­o­ries of that time. I was go­ing over there about a month af­ter the fa­ther and son had been am­bushed at night, to see the mother – the son was still in hos­pi­tal, the dad had been killed. And see­ing the car sprayed with bullet marks and blood was like some­thing out of a movie. But my big­gest im­pres­sion from that time was just how tough it was for [black] farm work­ers. They’d get beaten up and in the end it’s es­ti­mated a mil­lion work­ers were left to move on and make

a plan some­where else. [If I’d been] born into another fam­ily, things could have been very dif­fer­ent for me.

GQ: Do you feel bit­ter­ness to­wards Mu­gabe’s regime? DP:

It’s pretty com­plex – he’s a lib­er­a­tion hero, and you can’t take that away from him. Hav­ing said that, he has a lot to an­swer for, like Guku­rahundi, where at least 20,000 peo­ple were killed in the early ’80s, not to men­tion the cur­rent tur­moil the coun­try’s in. But look­ing at the peo­ple who’d be­come so bit­ter and con­sumed, I re­ally didn’t want to be like that. You need to try and un­der­stand the com­plex­i­ties of it all be­cause in Zim­babwe, ev­ery­one’s a vic­tim in some way – the white farm­ers and the farm work­ers. And the land was stolen from the in­dige­nous peo­ple in the frst place. So it’s a cy­cle and if you con­tinue to be bit­ter, it keeps this cy­cle go­ing.

GQ: Would you ever move back? DP:

Pos­si­bly. I love vis­it­ing and I still have fam­ily there. We’d never con­sid­ered leav­ing Zim­babwe un­til our farm was taken for re­dis­tri­bu­tion and Mum and Dad de­cided to get out and move to Aus­tralia.

GQ: You came here in 2002, aged 14. Was it a tough tran­si­tion? DP:

Yeah, but we were so for­tu­nate to come here. It was those awk­ward teenage years where you’re not quite com­fort­able with your body and all the self-es­teem, want­ing to ft in. So sport was where I felt equal and it didn’t mat­ter about my ac­cent. It was also a way of cop­ing with the stress and trauma that was still ripe from the last few years in Zim­babwe.

GQ: What were you like in the class­room?

DP: I loved it. The school sys­tem in Zim­babwe was good – high­est African lit­er­acy [lev­els] was one of Mu­gabe’s lega­cies in the ’90s. Sadly it’s no longer the case.

GQ: So where does rugby rank in your life to­day? DP:

It’s changed over the years. At school, prob­a­bly year 10, I de­cided to have a crack at rugby and see if I could make it as a pro­fes­sional. I’ve apol­o­gised to my broth­ers as I was pretty self­cen­tred – I be­came ob­sessed with what I would eat and my train­ing sched­ule. And for the frst few years at Western Force, it was cer­tainly like that.

GQ: Was it hard re­lo­cat­ing to Perth, alone? DP:

The frst year was, yes. But I’m re­ally grate­ful for it. I got to do so much think­ing for my­self. When you grow up in a house you as­sume a lot of your fam­ily’s be­liefs and at 17, mov­ing away and think­ing about who am I, and re­assess­ing all of that, was in hind­sight pretty cool. Now, rugby is some­thing I re­ally en­joy do­ing but it’s not ev­ery­thing to me – there’s more to life than run­ning around chas­ing a ball.

GQ: How im­por­tant is the World Cup in Septem­ber? DP:

It’s huge – it’s ev­ery rugby player’s dream, and the pin­na­cle of the game. As a kid, I still re­mem­ber the ’95 fnal be­tween South Africa and New Zealand, watch­ing it at my grandpa’s house. That kick, the house went nuts. I also re­mem­ber go­ing to my room and cry­ing af­ter [Wal­laby] Steve Larkham hit that drop goal in the ’99 semi against South Africa. I was gut­ted.

GQ: So back then you sup­ported South Africa not the Wal­la­bies? DP:

For sure, I was a mas­sive Spring­bok sup­porter.

GQ: Pre­sum­ably that’s changed? DP: [laughs] Ab­so­lutely. GQ: What does rugby of­fer you emo­tion­ally? DP:

I love the team­work as­pect and ev­ery­thing it en­tails – the wins, the losses; go­ing through it to­gether, you build strong bonds. And per­son­ally you get to chal­lenge your­self phys­i­cally and men­tally. I’m grate­ful for what I’ve learnt through rugby – it’s made me a bet­ter per­son.

GQ: What does it mean to rep­re­sent Aus­tralia? DP:

I’m so ap­pre­cia­tive of the op­por­tu­ni­ties I’ve had in Aus­tralia and re­ally proud to play for the Wal­la­bies. When you’re go­ing out there, the big thing for me is you’re rep­re­sent­ing so many peo­ple and such a di­verse group.

GQ: In 2011, you ad­mit­ted to hav­ing “a very skewed idea of body im­age”. How did you over­came that? DP:

Be­ing se­lected and get­ting to play rugby helped – so did work­ing through the trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ences of my child­hood and un­der­stand­ing my­self bet­ter. Emma [Po­cock’s part­ner of six years] has been great around my eat­ing and train­ing habits. She is a real whole­foods guru and a great cook, who loves to put but­ter in ev­ery­thing, so I have the lux­ury of hav­ing amaz­ing food at home. She’s re­ally at­tuned to what makes me tick and so when I’m get­ting stressed or feel­ing over­whelmed she can see it com­ing. For oth­ers strug­gling with this is­sue, learn­ing to deal with the un­der­ly­ing mo­ti­va­tors that cause the be­hav­iours is hugely im­por­tant.

GQ: As sports­men go, you’re fairly ac­tive on so­cial media. How can ath­letes put such a plat­form to good use? DP:

It’s a re­ally in­ter­est­ing thing to be able to see. When I was a kid I used to idolise play­ers like [ex-spring­bok] Bobby Skin­stad and [ex-wal­laby] Ge­orge Smith, but I can’t imag­ine what it would have been like if I’d had ac­cess to what they were post­ing. So it’s a great op­por­tu­nity to give young­sters in­sight into the rugby side of things, but to also show what other is­sues are im­por­tant. Just be­cause you’re a pro­fes­sional ath­lete doesn’t mean you can’t have an opin­ion on so­cial is­sues.

GQ: You once said sport is at its best when it’s chal­leng­ing so­ci­ety to be­come more in­clu­sive. Does it need more peo­ple like you? DP:

It’s not some­thing I push onto team­mates. And with all the pres­sures of per­form­ing and the fact that at best you’re do­ing it for 10-15 years, it’s hard to hold it against ath­letes like Pete Sam­pras or Michael Jor­dan, who just didn’t want to go there be­cause of the ef­fect it might have had on their mar­ketabil­ity. But my per­sonal view is that I’ve benefted so much from so­ci­ety – af­ter all, pro­fes­sional sport is paid for by those watch­ing – and I feel the least I can do is try and give back and play my role as a citizen, not just an ath­lete.

GQ: You’ve gone some way to chal­leng­ing ho­mo­pho­bia in sport. What’s the next step? DP:

Rugby’s do­ing some great stuff. Ob­vi­ously, there was [for­mer Welsh player] Gareth Thomas com­ing out a few years ago, so I re­ally be­lieve that the tide has turned and the thing for me is that if you be­lieve in mar­riage equal­ity and don’t think peo­ple should be dis­crim­i­nated against be­cause of their sex­u­al­ity, then you have to chal­lenge ho­mo­pho­bia in your per­sonal life. And that ap­plies to the prej­u­dices you grew up with. Then chal­lenge fam­ily, friends and your work­place. The sport has re­ally tried to be­come a more in­clu­sive and welcome en­vi­ron­ment.

GQ: Against the Waratahs in March, Jac­ques Pot­gi­eter re­peat­edly used the word ‘fag­got’. Were his com­ments more ig­no­rant than ma­li­cious? DP:

Ab­so­lutely. So much of the lan­guage that we use as kids is ho­mo­pho­bic and it will be un­til we chal­lenge that. There were some things said that weren’t nice but the pleas­ing thing was that peo­ple were talk­ing about it and I was re­ally im­pressed with Jac­ques’ re­sponse.

GQ: You copped a fair bit of public flak for speak­ing out – was that hurt­ful? DP:

I was sur­prised. There was noth­ing pre­med­i­tated about it – it was a split-sec­ond de­ci­sion. But the ARU [Aus­tralian Rugby Union] stood by me and it was han­dled re­ally well. That’s the value of hav­ing an in­clu­sion pol­icy be­cause it cov­ers from un­der fves, when you start play­ing, all the way up.

GQ: In your opin­ion, will a pro­fes­sional Aussie foot­baller – any code – come out in the next few years? DP:

Sta­tis­ti­cally, there has to be play­ers out there, un­less pro­fes­sional Aus­tralian con­tact sports are just re­ally good at weed­ing out ho­mo­sex­ual men and dis­cour­ag­ing them from play­ing. I think the more we make rugby an in­clu­sive en­vi­ron­ment, the less of a big deal it will be­come.

GQ: Do you know of any gay men cur­rently play­ing pro­fes­sion­ally? DP: No. GQ: So what ex­actly was the cat­a­lyst to you cam­paign­ing for mar­riage equal­ity? DP:

It was a bit of a process. I was brought up in a pretty con­ser­va­tive Chris­tian home and then mov­ing to Perth, I tried to think about some of those be­liefs I’d just as­sumed. The mo­ment it re­ally sank in was hav­ing friends in same­sex re­la­tion­ships and then dat­ing Emma. Look­ing at our re­la­tion­ships, I thought, ‘They have the same love, they laugh the same – this is ridicu­lous.’ So when Em and I de­cided we’d like to get mar­ried, we talked to a few of our [gay] friends. For some, mar­riage was a bit of a non-is­sue, but we felt for some same-sex cou­ples it’s a big is­sue, and if peo­ple want to get mar­ried to celebrate their com­mit­ment, they should be able to and that’s the point of it. That’s why we de­cided not to get for­mally mar­ried, per se.

GQ: Do you think you will be able to any time soon? DP:

Who knows? If the polls are right, and politi­cians are rep­re­sent­ing their elec­torate, then it’s well over­due.

GQ: Tell us about Emma. How did you guys meet? DP:

We had a mu­tual friend. She was run­ning some non­vi­o­lence work­shops in schools – one in a boy’s school I was coach­ing rugby at in Perth. When we met, she thought all football play­ers were ar­se­holes and, for me, I didn’t know much about fem­i­nism and prob­a­bly would have thought fem­i­nists were peo­ple to be avoided. So, match made in heaven. But it’s been great.

GQ: Do you think the com­mon man un­der­stands fem­i­nism? DP:

It’s not re­ally for me to be judg­ing the fem­i­nist move­ment, but I’m in­ter­ested in the idea of chal­leng­ing pa­tri­archy. It’s ob­vi­ously aw­ful for women but it also cuts men off from their emo­tions side and seems to pro­duce men who are dis­con­nected from their fem­i­nine-feel­ing side. The av­er­age guy will have grown up hear­ing, ‘Boys don’t cry’, ‘Boys don’t do this.’ Say I’ve had a re­ally bad day, and Em says, ‘What’s wrong?’ – I can’t ac­tu­ally ar­tic­u­late how I feel and just feel numb.

GQ: So how would you de­scribe mod­ern mas­culin­ity? DP:

I think the Aus­tralian idea of mas­culin­ity is em­bed­ded with, and re­in­forced by, sub­tle and overt forms of vi­o­lence. It’s what re­in­forces the di­chotomies that un­der­pin western cap­i­tal­ism – priv­i­leg­ing men over women, hu­mans over na­ture, western over in­dige­nous, head over heart. Struc­tural vi­o­lence is in­her­ent in the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem – think of Aus­tralia’s bru­tal colo­nial history, our use of peo­ple in the global south in sweat­shops pro­duc­ing the goods we use, the way we treat the en­vi­ron­ment, ris­ing in­equal­ity and so much more. This way of think­ing dis­con­nects us from each other and that is aw­ful.

GQ: Wow. Given that spray, do you ever feel like an ano­maly in the rugby world? DP:

No. De­spite rugby hav­ing a history in Aus­tralia of be­ing a pri­vate-school, priv­i­leged, up­per-mid­dle-class sport, there’s huge di­ver­sity now with Pacifc Is­lan­ders mak­ing up 40 per cent of pro­fes­sional play­ers. The guys at the [ACT] Brumbies are my fam­ily and I’ve re­ally en­joyed my time there. What, with the back­lash af­ter the Waratahs game and af­ter join­ing the Leard Block­ade, which blew up, you cop a bit of flak, but that’s all part of it.

GQ: You’re talk­ing about be­ing ar­rested for protest­ing at the Maules Creek (NSW) coal mine. Did any­one tell you to rein it in and fo­cus on rugby? DP:

It comes back to the so­ci­etal view that football codes are meant to re­in­force a cer­tain type of mas­culin­ity and the idea of what it is to be a man. And if you chal­lenge that and have an opin­ion about some­thing else then a lot of peo­ple just say, ‘Oi, fo­cus on rugby’ or, ‘There’s no room for pol­i­tics in sport.’ That’s their opin­ion and I dis­agree.

GQ: Where does this de­sire to speak out come from? DP:

Ex­pe­ri­enc­ing all the up­heaval in Zim­babwe, and be­ing a mi­nor­ity there, has defnitely played its part. But it’s hap­pened over time. A black friend of mine, who’s here, says race wasn’t an is­sue in Zim­babwe, but now he’s called things like ‘mon­key’ on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. That drives home how im­por­tant it is to speak up if some­thing’s wrong.

GQ: Many would la­bel you the ul­ti­mate mod­ern man. How does that sit with you? DP:

A friend in Perth of­ten says not to get caught up in the pos­i­tive feed­back from peo­ple who don’t know me. It would be easy as a male ath­lete, par­tic­u­larly a foot­baller, to en­joy such af­fr­ma­tion and think ‘I’d made it’. But the re­al­ity is we live in a com­plex world with so many in­jus­tices and I am deeply aware of the way that both my white male priv­i­lege and rugby ca­reer might per­pet­u­ate some of those things. It’s hum­bling but I feel un­com­fort­able about the idea that be­cause I do a cer­tain job, and had ac­cess to a de­cent ed­u­ca­tion, that I might have more power or so­cial cur­rency than oth­ers who didn’t have those same op­por­tu­ni­ties.

GQ: Tell us about your char­ity, Eightytwenty Vi­sion. DP:

In 2007, things were get­ting pretty dark in Zim­babwe, par­tic­u­larly in the ru­ral ar­eas. I’d been back to visit a few times and re­ally wanted to give back in some way. But grow­ing up in Africa you’re very aware of the at­ti­tude of ‘white man knows best, this is how you do things’. If you look at the history of aid and de­vel­op­ment, bil­lions and bil­lions of dol­lars have been spent on Africa but you’d ar­gue where it’s gone. So I re­ally wanted to fnd a com­mu­nity that was build­ing to­wards re­silience and try to help them move in the right di­rec­tion. In 2009, we [Po­cock and friend Luke O’keefe] found this amaz­ing group of peo­ple in Nkayi, 170km from Gweru, and it started there. Things were pretty bleak – there were 120,000 peo­ple in the area and they’d had no doc­tor for two years; and the HIV/AIDS in­fec­tion rate was at 19 per cent.

GQ: What steps did you take in the be­gin­ning? DP:

Be­ing a small or­gan­i­sa­tion, we were able to move with the com­mu­nity. So we worked with them, ask­ing how they en­vis­aged their lives in 10 years, and how we could work to­gether – in­stead of just say­ing, ‘What do you need, we’ll give it to you.’

GQ: It must be ful­fill­ing. DP:

It’s been a great learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and I’ve tried to get back ev­ery year. It’s one of those things where at the out­set you aim to help peo­ple but you come out feel­ing like you’ve gained more from it and learnt so much. It’s re­ally given me a sense of per­spec­tive.

GQ: What’s the hard­est thing about run­ning the char­ity? DP:

There’s a ten­dency, when fundrais­ing, to fall into the whole ‘poverty porn’ thing where the mes­sage is, ‘these poor peo­ple des­per­ately need your help.’ In­stead, we’ve tried to say, ‘Look, these in­cred­i­bly re­silient, re­source­ful peo­ple have been bat­tered by po­lit­i­cal and so­cio-eco­nomic is­sues but with some part­ner­ship, they’ve seen a huge change in ba­sics like ma­ter­nal health and pride in the com­mu­nity.’

GQ: And it’s through such char­ity work that you met the for­mer Arch­bishop Desmond Tutu ear­lier this year? DP:

A few years ago he did a promo video for us and from there we agreed that if our sched­ules co­in­cided, we’d meet up. He’s one of my he­roes – I ad­mire how he’s put him­self on the line for what he be­lieves in. What he did for post-apartheid South Africa was such a big step in be­gin­ning the heal­ing of the coun­try. I just sat there next to him think­ing, ‘This is the most hu­man per­son’ – he’s down-toearth and has the best laugh.

GQ: And like your par­ents, you’re still in­ter­ested in farm­ing? DP:

Yeah, I love get­ting my hands dirty and hav­ing that con­nec­tion with the earth. I have a gar­den grow­ing and when I was out in­jured [last year] it re­ally kept me sane. It gives you that sense of sea­son­al­ity and that a lot of things are out of your con­trol. The eco­log­i­cal side also ap­peals to me in terms of sus­tain­ably feed­ing peo­ple.

GQ: If you could, what would you chal­lenge Tony Ab­bott on? DP:

In a time of global eco­log­i­cal cri­sis, we could have such a big­ger vi­sion for Aus­tralia; a vi­sion that ac­knowl­edges these chal­lenges and faces them head on. We’re de­stroy­ing our own land base, the Earth, which ul­ti­mately means we’re de­stroy­ing our­selves. That’s a pretty mas­sive crit­i­cism of Tony Ab­bott’s ide­ol­ogy and prime min­is­ter­ship with­out even touch­ing on his gov­ern­ment, the cru­elty to refugees and his use of fear as a po­lit­i­cal tool. It’s dis­ap­point­ing, but as some­one whose po­lit­i­cal views were formed in Zim­babwe, I can’t say I started out with high hopes. It’s up to us, as or­di­nary cit­i­zens, to start wrestling con­trol of the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem back to the grass­roots and away from cor­po­ra­tions and bil­lion­aires who wield far too much power.

GQ: What’s your end goal? Where do you see your­self next? DP:

I think about that quite a bit, but I don’t have any an­swers. Lots of things in­ter­est me out­side of rugby and I’d like to spend more time study­ing. Ems is in­volved in food sovereignty so we’ll see where that goes too.

GQ: So you’ve proved Emma wrong about all rugby play­ers be­ing ar­se­holes? DP:

She’s defnitely changed her tune [laughs]. We cer­tainly don’t help our­selves, but there’s some nice guys out there.

GQ: What do those guys think about you do­ing a shoot for GQ? DP:

No one knows yet, but I’m sure some­one will fnd it. And not a day goes by when there’s not a rib­bing about some­thing, so it’ll be funny. n

Cot­ton ‘Bron­son’ shirt, $89.95, by The Academy Brand; cot­ton chi­nos, $99.95, by Trenery; ti­ta­nium/ stain­less steel ‘Pe­la­gos’ watch, $5250, by Tu­dor; leather belt, $595, by Sal­va­tore Fer­rag­amo.

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