Wallaby Watch: David Pocock

With the Lions tour to Australia now just a stone's throw away, we're taking a look at the Wallaby heroes we expect to play a major role against Britain and Ireland's elite. [more]

Wallaby Watch: David Pocock

With the Lions tour to Australia now just a stone’s throw away, we’re taking a look at the Wallaby heroes we expect to play a major role against Britain and Ireland’s elite.

We’ll be giving you the lowdown on the star names we feel pose the biggest threat to the Lions’ hopes of a first series victory in 16 years, and we’ll be asking you for your thoughts and suggestions on facebook and twitter.

Some of the players we highlight will already be household names but others will be bolts from the blue, youngsters yet to cement a starting spot or experienced club campaigners peaking at just the right time to achieve the ultimate goal this summer.

And where else could we start than with the man who seems to be at the heart of all things good about the Wallabies; the player who provides the perfect link between the Wallaby pack and their much-talked about backline, and the man who keeps his team on the front foot and the opposition on their toes – David Pocock.

The term ‘legend’ is over used in the sporting arena these days but looking back at Australian Rugby over the years a whole host of famous names immediately spring to mind. The likes of Ken Catchpole and Mark Ella, Michael Lynagh and David Campese, John Eales, George Gregan and Stephen Larkham all lit up the world stage during their time in the spotlight and will long be remembered as greats of our game, but fast forward to the present day and of all the star names in the current Wallaby set up, Pocock stands out above the rest.

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He may not possess the flashiness of Quade Cooper or the innate ball-playing skills of Kurtley Beale or James O’Connor, but his importance to almost every aspect of the way the Wallabies like to play cannot be underestimated.

His recent prolonged absence through injury has seen understudy Michael Hooper step up to the mark sensationally but whenever Pocock is fit it will be a case of whether the youngster gets the nod to join him, rather than replace him, in the back row.

When Wallaby boss Robbie Deans left out a long list of regular starters from the side that lost to Samoa in the summer of 2011, it was Pocock whose absence was most keenly felt. Suddenly the Wallabies went from dominating the tackle area to being bullied at the breakdown. They lost the battle of the gainline, their forwards were forced to retreat to hit rucks and mauls and their backs were left with backfoot ball for much of a depressing 80 minutes in Sydney.

Defeat taught Deans a valuable lesson: tinker with your team all you like as you look to find strength in depth and the perfect combinations, but remove your central pillar and the roof could easily come crashing down. And if Hooper’s rise to prominence had hinted that maybe the Wallabies might just be alright without Pocock after all, an equally embarrassing 36-3 hammering at the hands of France two months ago should have put any such suggestions to bed.

The fact that Pocock is the foundations on which Wallaby success is built should hardly come as a surprise. Few players can claim to rival All Black great Richie McCaw when it comes to being seen as the globe’s most effective player. The fact that Pocock is even spoken about in the same breath as the New Zealand skipper speaks volumes for his progress since he made his international debut as a raw 20-year-old back in October 2008.

Pocock’s biggest fans may have initially seemed a little far sighted for suggesting that their man could soon be challenging McCaw for the game’s most-prized individual mantle but their predictions are now coming true. The 24-year-old flanker might not have knocked his All Black rival from top spot in the individual IRB rankings just yet but there’s no doubt that Pocock can now be considered in the same league as New Zealand’s national hero.

And while it was another flanker in Frenchman Thierry Dusatoir who picked up the IRB Player of the Year Award prior to current incumbent Dan Carter in 2011, Pocock remains McCaw’s biggest challenger for the status of the world’s premier No7 in an era when the openside flank has become one of the most influential positions on the park.

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David Pocock is a sensational seven and a key man for the Wallabies

So what is it exactly that makes Pocock so special? Forget the long-drawn out answers or the ‘hmms’ and ‘aaahs’, this one’s simple: Pocock dominates the breakdown.

His ability to secure possession when his own team have the ball and to steal it when the opposition are on the surge is a huge, huge asset. In both attack and defence, Pocock is the central cog in the Wallaby wheel.

When Australia are in possession, Pocock’s talents allow his backs to prosper. His pace in arriving at the breakdown and his effectiveness once in position provide the quick ball needed for the backline to do the most damage. In short, Pocock creates the space for others to exploit. And in an age where defences are so well marshalled and room to manoeuvre is so hard to come by, Pocock’s contribution is absolutely crucial for a side that has – until injuries ravaged the camp last year – liked to keep ball in hand and use the entire width of the pitch.

In defence Pocock’s role is even more important. It’s here that Pocock is officially a nuisance. Speeding up your own ball is a major plus but slowing down the opposition is potentially even more critical at the very top level.

Pocock’s jackaling abilities are simply sensational. His positioning over the ball and his willingness to put his head where it hurts while somehow staying on his feet under intense physical pressure set him apart from your average openside. The amount of turnover ball he claims for the Wallabies is nigh on incredible. And when you play for a team that cannot always rely on its setpiece for a steady source of possession, picking up the loose ends and turning defence into attack is absolutely vital. Throw in the fact that turnover ball is so often the best platform from which to attack and it becomes clear that Pocock is king of Australia’s castle.

But it’s not just when he turns over possession that Pocock is playing an important role. Even when he can’t quite wrestle the ball from an opponent or win a penalty for forcing the opposition to hang on in the tackle, Pocock is doing something equally constructive, if a little less quantifiable. It might not look as glamorous or receive as much attention but simply slowing the ball down is absolutely essential. Preventing the opposition from playing with quick ball gives his Wallaby colleagues out wide what they want: the chance to realign and set themselves in defence.

Pocock’s talents also ensure the numbers game is often stacked in the Wallabies’ favour both offensively and defensively. If you have a team member who can speed the ball up or slow the ball down almost single handedly, there is less of a need to commit others to the breakdown. Conversely for the opposition, if you can’t win clean ball or prevent your opponents from doing the same without knocking one particular individual out of the way, you’ll need to throw more men into the tackle area to solve the problem.

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Pocock is a terrier in the tackle area and the Lions will have to match him there

And solving that particular conumdrum looks like having a major impact on whether the Lions will head home with a series victory in 2013.

A largely unknown No7 caused Britain and Ireland’s elite all sorts of problems in 2009 when Heinrich Brussow made a name for himself after initially missing out on selection for the Springbok squad. The diminutive Brussow was arguably his country’s leading performer in the three-match series as the then World Champions ran out 2-1 winners over Sir Ian McGeechan’s men. There’s no such danger of the Lions knowing little about the star seven this time around but it doesn’t make the challenge of negating his effectiveness any easier.

The reward for minimising Pocock’s presence in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney in June and July of next year could be a dream series win for the Lions but to ignore his presence or to allow him to build up a head of steam would surely be tactical suicide.

Stop Pocock and you stop the Wallabies at source. Stop Pocock and you give yourselves a chance of quick, front foot ball. Stop Pocock and the collision area becomes your domain. But let him run free to do what he does best and you are left playing a very dangerous game.

Fast facts

Name: David Pocock
Date of birth: 23/04/1988
Position: Openside flanker
Club: Brumbies – signed from the Force for the start of the 2013 season
Height: 6ft
Weight: 15 stone 10lbs
Test debut: Versus New Zealand in Hong Kong, November 2008
Test caps: 46 (as of 24/01/2013)

Strengths and weaknesses

Strengths: a near super-human stature at the breakdown. Pocock is a more than capable all-round rugby player but it’s his ability in the tackle area that makes him a global superstar.

Weaknesses: hard to pinpoint any if we’re being totally honest. Size isn’t any major plus at just 6ft but we’re clutching at straws here such is Pocock’s quality. He’s not the strongest of ball carriers but that’s not surprising given the amount of time he spends at the breakdown. And when you can jackal opposition ball and secure your side’s own possession like Pocock, it would be somewhat strange of the Wallaby coaching team to encourage him to focus on making the hard yards with ball in hand more often.

Chances of being involved against the Lions: few things in sport are certain yet Pocock’s presence when the Lions run out in Brisbane on June 22 of next year appears a foregone conclusion. Only injury or suspension looks like ruining his Lions dream, however well Hooper plays in the Super XV.

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Pocock is a near certainty to be seeing Andy Irvine again this summer

Rivals for the Wallaby shirt

While it is true that no player owns his international jersey, the Australian No7 shirt has been as good as Pocock’s for some considerable time now.

When George Smith filled the berth for much of the last decade the dreadlocked hero was keeping out a man of similar stature in Waratahs legend Phil Waugh. If Smith was unavailable, Waugh would step in and keep the ship afloat.

Smith’s understudy was far more than just an able replacement and would have walked into most starting XVs in world rugby at the time. The fact that Waugh went on to play alongside his nemesis as the Wallabies switched Smith to six says a lot about the competition for the seven spot in the early and mid noughties.

Until the back end of last season, it was a very different story. No such rivalry existed and the Wallabies were a very different animal if Pocock was missing from their line up.

While there was no shortage of depth lower down the system when it came to the openside flank despite critics claiming big problems elsewhere, Pocock had long been without doubt his country’s first-choice No7. Even if he were to produce a handful of poor games for club or country, you would have been hard pushed to find anyone campaigning for his de-selection.

All that changed in 2012, though, as Hooper burst on to the Test scene.

Way down the pecking order behind both Ita Vaea and Colby Fianga’a at the Brumbies prior to the last Super XV campaign, Hooper enjoyed a break through year for his franchise. It might have been his third in Super Rugby but it became his first as a starter having been named his country’s U20 Player of the Year in 2011.

Hooper’s fine form domestically saw him make his Test debut against Scotland in June, before he really showed his worth when Pocock fell victim to injury against New Zealand. The 21-year-old won three of the five Player of the Day awards in the Rugby Championship fixtures that followed Pocock’s departure and he followed that up with another huge display in the win over England at Twickenham in November.

But despite deputising quite brilliantly for his older rival, Hooper gave up his spot in the side as soon as Pocock was ready to return against Wales on December 1. That particular selection decision reminded everyone that Pocock is No1 and that Hooper’s skills will only be used to complement his own come June 22 at the Suncorp Stadium.

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Michael Hooper showed his considerable worth in Pocock's absence

As for the others looking to put pressure on Pocock, Liam Gill of the Reds appears to be next in line. Another star of the Aussie U20 system, Gill was his country’s age-grade captain at the 2012 World Championships – an experience that actually prevented him from playing a role for the senior side against Scotland and Wales 12 months’ prior to the Lions series.

Like Hooper, he impressed domestically for the Reds last term and is viewed by a few to have the potential to be an even better breakdown player than his two major Test rivals. It would take something extraordinary for him to be picked above the pair in the coming months, though, given the strength and form of both men ahead of him.

Given what Deans has said about his versatility and a potential switch to six, Gill has a cracking chance of a fine future at Test level but his career isn’t likely to receive the real kickstart he’ll be looking for before the Lions arrive in town.

If the Lions were touring Australia rather than New Zealand in 2017, Pocock’s position could be in serious threat from either Gill or Hooper, or even both. But they’re not and therefore Pocock looks like an incredibly safe bet to be the man guarding the gates to Wallaby country and blocking the Lions’ path to glory come the summer.

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