Pocock's passion to make a big difference


This impressive young Australian is proving to be far more than just a great rugby player, writes GERRY THORNLEY, Rugby Correspondent

AS THE catchline on the heroesboots website says, “more than just another rugby player”, and talking with David Pocock makes for more than just another interview. It’s actually as humbling as it is interesting.

A beast of a man, the 23-year-old has been shortlisted for the IRB’s world player of the year in each of the last two years. Pocock’s performance in the Wallabies’ quarter-final win over South Africa was assuredly the individual performance of the tournament and today he captains his country for the first time against the Barbarians.

As someone reared in Zimbabwe until his family’s farm was confiscated by the government and the family uprooted to Australia when he was 14, his African roots very much continue to shape him.

Last Saturday, as the Wallabies were en route to Europe for their short end-of-year tour, Pocock was being honoured as Western Australia’s Young Australian of the Year at a ceremony at Government House in Perth as much for his “extraordinary achievements” off the rugby field as on it. By dint of that, he has been shortlisted for the honour of Young Australian of the Year, to be decided in January in Canberra.

His humanitarian efforts have brought hope to disadvantaged communities in his native Zimbabwe ever since, in 2009, Pocock established the charity EightyTwenty Vision alongside his close friend Luke O’Keefe. He has worked tirelessly to raise funds for projects focusing on health care for HIV and Aids sufferers, education for children, food and water security, and human rights. He also regularly travels to Africa to assist in projects and help ensure the rewards are tangible.

Eightytwenty Vision is working to assist the people of Nkayi and improving their standard of living through a focus on economic development and equipping people with skills for self-sustenance. Nkayi is situated in Matabeleland North Province, and, like much of rural Zimbabwe, has experienced severe food shortages, resulting in malnutrition and poor health. Like elsewhere in Zimbabwe it is also vulnerable to HIV and Aids.

“Growing up in Zimbabwe until I was about 14 I got to see how the vast majority would live in a developing world, and moving to Australia and seeing the standard of life that many people lived and, in some regards took for granted, I really wanted to use any profile or money or whatever I could to actually help people, particularly when it happens politically and economically.”

“Our family lost our farm and had to move away but the general perception towards Zimbabwe is, I guess, that a few individuals over there have just bought it for millions and the average Zimbabwean is such an amazing person. The really important thing for me, when Luke O’Keefe and I started it up, was ensuring that in our fund-raising and the work we were doing we were portraying the Zimbabwean people not as helpless victims of poverty . . .

“The average Zimbabwean is just incredible; so resourceful and resilient. And to be in the country they’ve been living in for the past ten years and still be able to share a joke and still have such a strong emphasis on family and community, I was real keen to get involved.”

He and O’Keefe began to do so in 2009 when they supported a community development project, leading to the concept of Eightytwenty Vision.

“There are four thematic areas we are involved in. The first one is health and in particular maternal health. The other one is education and working with local schools to improve infrastructure and getting more kids to school.

“Water and food security is obviously a huge one in southern Africa, with water shortages and diseases, and then helping farmers to move to consolation farming, which is low tool-high yield farming.

“The last area is women’s rights and the rights of the girl child. In so many cultures and particularly in times of poverty the boys are given privileges over the girls in terms of going to school and all these other opportunities, whereas the girls are kept at home to be married off.”

He is passionate about it, he enjoys it, he’s ambitious with it and, mindful of so much Third World aid, especially to Africa, having had mixed results, he and O’Keefe are very hands on with the project workers on the ground, encouraging them to have responsibility with the ultimate aim of needing no help from them.

“A really rewarding aspect is spending time with people in Zimbabwe whose lives are totally different from mine. To them I’m not David Pocock the rugby player, I’m just some other guy.

“They accept me into their communities and I’m able to get to know them and their lives and their challenges. It’s a real eye-opener and something I’ve learned a lot from, seeing how much I’ve taken things for granted in the past and still do, and just how big the gap is between people in the world.”

Encouragingly, Pocock says they’ve seen some tangible progress over the past three years, particularly with regard to maternal health.

“You often think that it’s going to take so much money but often it’s very basic things that over here you wouldn’t even think about,” he says, citing a rural health clinic where they built a ward.

“Because there was no real transport, expectant mothers would walk to the clinics two weeks before they were due, and a couple of days after they give birth, walk back home. Because there was no place for them to sleep they had to sleep on the floor, so they were giving birth at home and having complications.

“We heard horrific stories of women going into labour and being put on the back of a donkey cart for 40k. Simply by renovating one room and putting in 20 beds, the births in this clinic have gone form 18 in 12 months to 18 to 20 every month since then.”

There’s more. Three years ago Pocock began painting his football boots black and rejecting financial incentives to wear products as he realised that the manufacturing process was implicitly connected to sweatshop production. What he really desired was footwear (football boots and running shoes) and clothing that were manufactured ethically and he could wear as a player. Hence, in 2011 Heroes Boots was born.

Ultimately, Heroes Boots is striving to produce its own boots and clothing in workers’ co-operatives or fair trade factories, with the profits to assist charities which are endeavouring to bring change for those who are restricted by poverty or face isolation and oppression.

To understand Pocock’s motivation, one needs to know more about his story.

The oldest of three boys (Michael and Stephen are his younger brothers) his father Andy and mother Joan ran a vegetable and flower farm in Zimbabwe which was confiscated in 2001.

They moved to Brisbane in 2002, where his parents started up a similar farm.

None of this would be possible had he not been fortunate enough to play rugby professionally and the attendant profile.

“I started playing at school when I was seven years old and just loved it. Throwing a rugby ball around with my dad since I could remember in the back yard, when I got the chance to play at school I just looked forward to rugby term every year and was pretty good at it.”

He describes the move, though “challenging”, as “a relief in many ways” and a sacrifice by his parents for which he is eternally grateful. Playing rugby in his new home country also helped him make friends and settle in at the Anglican Church Grammar School in Brisbane, where, as in club rugby, he played inside centre outside one Quade Cooper.

“We had a pretty handy team,” he says with wry understatement.

Did he ever know what Cooper was going to do next? “Not most of the time, but it was fun.”

In 2006, Pocock moved to Perth when offered a professional contract by John Mitchell and Western Force. The Australian Rugby Union’s laws prohibited players under the age of 18 from playing senior rugby but, with his parents’ approval, Mitchell played Pocock, then 17, in the Force’s first trial game under the name of another injured player. However, the Australian newspaper carried a picture of Pocock highlighting this illegality, on foot of which the law was eventually changed.

In his recently published autobiography, Openside: My Journey to the Rugby World Cup, he goes into detail about this episode and his family’s move to Australia from Zimbabwe, before revealing the extent of “a stress-related eating disorder” which he traces to that move and which he still manages today.

The book is available on Amazon and can be downloaded on iBooks, though a higher percentage of the royalties go to Pocock and to his charities if it is purchased directly from www.davidpocock.com, www.eightytwentyvision.org, or www.heroesboots.com.

“A lot of people have ribbed me about writing a book at 23, being so young, but I guess I tell my story so far, about growing up in Zimbabwe, and the challenges of moving to Australia and then a lot about the rugby since then and a fair bit about the World Cup.”

All Pocock’s royalties from his book will go to Heroes Boots and EightyTwenty Vision. The road to Heroes Boots was a journey of discovery, inspired in part by friends who started up an ethical shoe company.

“To accept money to wear boots when the people who are making them can hardly afford to feed their families or send them to school, I just decided I couldn’t do that. It wasn’t something I wanted to do and I also wanted to come up with an alternative for people who wanted to buy something that would give their money to people down at the other end of the production system.”

They will have some rugby balls out of production in the next “couple of months” but the technological challenges in actually making boots will be a tougher bridge to cross. It is very much a work in progress.

Pocock is not preachy or holier-than-thou, least of all to team-mates.

“I’ve always been a firm believer is just letting your actions do the preaching,” he says wryly.

“I think it was St Francis of Assisi who said ‘preach at all times and sometimes use words’. I don’t try and heckle or hustle the boys about it. If they ask questions we’ll have a chat and we’ve had some great chats. But generally I don’t try to challenge the guys.”

Aside from his family’s upbringing and support, much of his motivation also comes from a strong faith and, “reading the story of Jesus and realising just how much he cared for people who were oppressed and forgotten, and how much he stood with the poor”.

And then there was his marriage to Emma.

“We work together and I’m part of a little community in Perth and that’s where we’ve talked about a lot of things.”

He would love people to support EightyTwentyVision but, acknowledging that it has its limitations, says: “There are so many things that we can do, as people living in developed nations. Simple things, just in terms of the products we consume, and asking questions about where they come from, because we’re so disconnected from the whole production process.”

He cites the basic example of chocolate, and that product’s inherent problems with child slave labour in west Africa.

“Yet we seldom ask over here (in developed countries) where the chocolate comes from and simply by supporting programmes like Fair Trade can make a difference in these areas and guarantee farmers a fair price. Just by making these small decisions we can exert pressure on big companies to actually changes the lives of many people working in developing nations who are producing the stuff that we enjoy.”

“The huge problems that we’re having around the world, and in Ireland you’d be very familiar with it all, has really put the spotlight on capitalism as we know it, and just how much it favours those who have a lot and makes those who are poor a lot poorer, despite them doing the majority of the work. If people just think about it, we can all play our part in questioning the whole system and finding alternatives to what’s going on at present.”