How Pocock rebuilt himself to become game’s lethal predator
Daniel Schofield discovers how Australia’s breakdown expert came back better than ever
As a fan of David Attenborough documentaries, David Pocock will appreciate the analogy that Laurie Fisher, his former mentor at the Brumbies, draws between the Wallabies back row stalking turnovers and a cobra on the hunt.
The snake does not chase after everything but bides its time, waiting for the right target. When the prey does come within range, it strikes with such velocity and ferocity that its victim is rendered defenceless. New Zealand’s defence of their World Cup title will depend to a large extent on their ability to deal with this tournament’s apex predator.
Pocock has stolen a ball once every 21 minutes in this World Cup, winning a total of 14 turnovers from the four games he has started in the No 8 shirt. No other player has managed double figures. Even those eye-catching statistics belie the full extent of his contribution. “It is not just the amount of balls that he steals, but the number of balls that everyone else steals because of him and the slowing down of the ball or winning a penalty if you don’t get the pilfer,” said Phil Waugh, the former Australian openside flanker, who Pocock made his debut alongside in 2008.
To understand how the 27year-old has become so devastatingly effective at the breakdown you have to go back to his darkest days, the back-to-back knee reconstructions that kept him out for two years between 2013 and January this year. He used his injuries as an opportunity to rebuild himself.
Just to come back at all was remarkable in itself, according to the man who nursed him through his recovery, Brumbies rehab trainer Ben Serpell. “Any ACL [anterior cruciate ligament] injury is a career-threatener,” Serpell said. “A lot of people may have had several ACL injuries but I can’t think of anyone who has had them so close together and made a full recovery like David has. The second one happened almost 12 months to the day after his first set of surgery.”
The rehabilitation process was distinctly unglamorous. A lot of time was spent sharing facilities with a gymnastic class full of 10-year-old girls. There was also a lot of pool work, running up and down stairs of apartment complexes and paddle boarding. “We introduced a rugby ball into some of our drills but it was more decorative than anything,” Serpell says. Yet it was all done with a purpose. Pocock always had enormous upper body strength with his Popeye-like foreams. Yet, as Fisher tells The
Daily Telegraph, “when he first came to the Brumbies he was particularly weak through the hamstrings”.
By focusing on building up his hamstrings, glutes and his core strength combined with a lot of flexibility work, Pocock has “become a far more balanced athlete”, according to Fisher, now the Gloucester head coach. “It has enabled him to be stronger and efficient in what he does. His other great strength is his balance. He can actually get his feet up underneath you but still be in a strong position to jackal. Whereas most people have to get their feet in the right position before they can jackal, he can do it from a number of positions.”
Turnover steals have always been a Pocock speciality and now he has got even better. “He senses when it is on,” Fisher says. “As a younger man he just flew into everything. Now he picks his spots. He has grown his understanding
‘I can’t think of anybody who has made a full recovery like David has’
and weaponry. He accelerates into breakdowns in the perfect position. It is a surgical strike. That’s where he gets his power from because he can strike so quickly.”
So how do you stop him? With extreme difficulty is the general consensus. The clearout crew must react quickly and forcefully as England miserably failed to in their pool stage defeat. Although Fisher is not in the business of giving Kiwis advice, the most important
factor for New Zealand will be winning the initial gain-line collisions. “If you get dominated in contact then you provide a static target which is easier to find,” Fisher said.
“What they will do is they will back themselves to have good shapes in their game, carry with good leg drive and make sure support players are always on hand. Even then you won’t shut him out of the game completely – he is that good.”
‘It is a surgical strike – that’s where he gets his power’
14 David Pocock Australia 9 Leone Nakarawa Fiji 9 Thierry Dusautoir France 8 Agustín Creevy Argentina 8 Francois Louw South AfricaTurnovers won at Rugby World CupGreats of the modern game: David Pocock (left) and Julian Savea have been in wonderful form in this World Cup
8 Julian Savea New Zealand 5 Bryan Habana South Africa 5 Gareth Davies Wales 5 Juan Imhoff Argentina 5 Nehe Milner-Skudder NZ