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David Pocock: World Rugby's Player of 2015

Danny Coyle@dannyjpcoyleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 7, 2016

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 27:  David Pocock of Australia poses for a portrait during an Australia media session at The Lensbury Hotel on October 27, 2015 in London, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Dan Carter scooped the official World Rugby Player of the Year title for 2015, and no one would begrudge the New Zealander the plaudits that have come his way.

The fly-half, now at Racing 92, has battled injuries during the second half of his glittering career and was on a mission to appear in the 2015 Rugby World Cup final after injury robbed him of his place in the 2011 World Cup-winning New Zealand team.

He did so in style, kicking 16 points in the final to finish the tournament—and his international career—with that coveted World Cup medal around his neck.

But this column will turn to another man as its player of 2015.

David Pocock pulled on an international jersey on July 18, 2015, for the first time since December 1, 2012. During that period, he underwent not one, but two knee reconstructions.

After cartilage trouble had kept the flanker out of the 2012 international season, Pocock's first serious knee injury struck in March 2013 when he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in a game for the Brumbies against the Waratahs, per the Canberra Times (via smh.co.au).

In the same month of the following year, the curse struck Pocock again when he ruptured the same ACL, this time against the Western Force, per brumbies.com.au.

David Pocock @pocockdavid

Devastated but trying to keep perspective. So appreciative of all the support I've received. Thank you all

At that point in 2014, with Pocock facing a second nine-month rehabilitation process that left him just one Super Rugby season to prove his fitness, you would have been laughed out of the bookmakers for requesting a price that he would be the starting No. 8 for the Wallabies in the 2015 World Cup final.

Even if he was fully fit, the notion of him playing in the middle of the back row was alien.

Wind the clock forward to July 8, 2015.

Australia had been battered by South Africa in the first half of their opening Rugby Championship clash in Brisbane.

In the 45th minute, new coach Michael Cheika went to his bench with his side 20-7 down. He summoned Pocock, but not as a direct replacement for incumbent openside Michael Hooper, whose own sparkling form during Pocock's prolonged absence had quelled the longing for his return.

Instead, Cheika deployed Pocock as an unorthodox No. 8. Within two minutes, he had charged down a Springbok clearance and forced a five-metre scrum from which Australia almost scored.

In open play, the double act of Hooper and Pocock, two players with similar skill sets and body types, was starting to cause havoc for a tiring South African pack, which had lost the initiative in the scrum.

From another set piece, Hooper eventually scored, and the Wallabies completed a comeback at the death with a try from Tevita Kuridrani.

In the following game, Cheika was brave enough to start with Pocock at No. 8 against the All Blacks. Australia beat their old enemy for the first time in four years and, from being a debatable pick as one of two openside flankers Cheika would take to the World Cup, Pocock had changed the landscape.

Fox Sports' Tim Elbra wrote:

It did work - tremendously well. The ANZ Stadium Sydney match saw the Wallabies beat the All Blacks for the first time since 2011, winning the Rugby Championship in the process.

The Australian’s Wayne Smith noted after the win: “Cheika had thrown down the gauntlet not just to the All Blacks but to his own team as well by choosing two “sevens”, David Pocock and Michael Hooper in his backrow. It was a brave choice but it needed the Wallabies to make it work and how heroically they responded.”

With just one comeback season of Super Rugby under his belt and no prior experience as a No. 8, Pocock's performances in the rest of the tournament convinced Cheika that it was here the 27-year-old would be best played, and he trained Pocock there in the run-up to the Rugby World Cup.

At the tournament, he started with two tries against Fiji and followed it with a jaw-dropping performance against England, highlighting the chasm in class between the Australian and England's captain and No. 7 Chris Robshaw.

The Express' Andrew Elliot wrote

In the post-match press conference, the flanker (Robshaw) had to listen to his coach, Stuart Lancaster, describe Australia’s No 8 David Pocock as the best back row in the world. Talk about kicking a man when he is down.

[...]

As Lancaster said afterwards, Pocock managed to disrupt most of England’s attacks.

And if he was not forcing turnovers, the 27-year-old and his back-row cohorts, Michael Hooper and Scott Fardy, were ensuring that any ball England scrum-half Ben Youngs received was in slow-mo, allowing the Wallabies’ defence to realign.

Pocock was equally brilliant against Wales in the game that sealed top spot in their pool, and when he was left out with an injury for the quarter-final against Scotland, Australia nearly found themselves out of the tournament.

He returned for the semi-final against Argentina, and the Wallaby back-row trio of Pocock, Hooper and blindside Scott Fardy again put on a masterclass.

Pocock's presence made an enormous difference, as the Guardian's Andy Bull opined: "Pocock...ghosts around the field, tracking the ball, drifting into strange and vacant spaces. Two steps ahead, he has a preternatural understanding of the way the play is going to unfold, and a clairvoyant’s ability to predict where the ball is going to be in five seconds’ time."

New Zealand were too good for Australia in the final, but it was no surprise that it was a try from Pocock that sparked the Wallabies' mini-revival in the second half.

In less than a calendar year, David Pocock had climbed out of the depths of injury-induced despair for the second time and risen to the lofty status of the world's best back-row player.

But more than that, we had also learned much more about Pocock the man.

Here is a player who had pleaded with a referee during a Super Rugby game to do something about the homophobic comments coming from the opposition, per the Sydney Morning Herald.

We also learned he had refused to marry his girlfriend until same-sex couples were afforded the same marital rights in his homeland, per the Canberra Times.

Then there was his arrest for chaining himself to a digger in protest at the construction of a new coal mine in his home state, per the Guardian.

He told the Daily Mail:

People say that sport and politics shouldn't mix but I think it is important that sports people are interested in stuff outside of sport and talk about it. Rightly or wrongly, kids look up to professional athletes and if I can get young kids thinking about those sorts of issues that is a positive thing.

What we have seen from Pocock in 2015 is that a modern sportsman can not only return from career-threatening injury to be the best at what he does, but that he can do all that without ignorance to the bigger issues around him.

We often hear the refrain that sportsmen must be selfish and single-minded in the pursuit of excellence. But Pocock gives the lie to that.

Perhaps he is just that good that he can take the time to look up at the world around him, safe in the knowledge that his talents will not diminish with his thoughts elsewhere.

But that would be to ignore the hard work he has had to put in just to be able to pull his boots back on again.

On the field and off it, here is a man who gets it right every time, and his 2015 story was one for the ages.

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