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.
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.