MELBOURNE — When you’re washing in a river most nights because your digs don’t have running water, forget WiFi.
So even if David Pocock had wanted to tune into some Super Rugby during his recent sabbatical in Africa, he had Buckleys staying up on the Brumbies.
“We were based on a farm and for most of the Super season, we didn’t have internet reception. We didn’t even have running water,” Pocock said.
“There was no watching games. We were very much away from it, so it was a bit of a forced break. One of my younger cousins would send me a few text message updates with results and how he saw things.
“But talking this idea through with ‘Cheik’ a couple of years back or whenever it was, that was the plan. To really get away and freshen up.”
Pocock is speaking to the Sunday Telegraph from Ota, Japan, where he recently started his second season with the Robbie Deans-coached Panasonic Wild Knights.
The celebrated flanker is in the final stage of Australian rugby’s most debated sabbatical, which saw Pocock granted a year’s leave by the ARU and Brumbies as part of a new contract taking him through to the 2019 World Cup.
Those who follow Pocock on social media will know he spent the first half of the year in his beloved Africa, where the 29-year-old and partner Emma stayed largely in his original homeland Zimbabwe. The farm, outside Beitbridge in the lowveld, is owned by his grandfather.
“We helped run the property, growing tomatoes and so on. And we used that as a base to travel,” Pocock said.
“It allowed us to explore some things around conservation and agriculture.”
Using a long-term goal of helping create a “conservation, community development project” in Zimbabwe, the pair attended courses in game management, safe animal capture and rangeland science. Via newly-made friends and connections with conservation group Wild Ark, they walked among the animals in gameparks, visited anti-poaching units and learned bookloads about Africa’s flora and fauna.
One of the more memorable days, said Pocock, was walking in the Mana Pools National Park, on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Guided by legendary owner Nick Murray, they stood — quietly — within 10 metres of a wild bull elephant.
“Nick knows the individual elephants like he’s mates with them. He knows their moods,” Pocock said. “It was incredible. Getting up close to wild elephants on foot, approaching lions on foot. Being in their domain, it was awe-inspiring.”
A bush-bash holiday? Please. This is David Pocock we’re talking about.
“Maybe we squeezed in a bit much,” Pocock says.
“I think Emma might have preferred a few weeks on the beach. No, just joking. She was absolutely brilliant.”
To keep fit for rugby, Pocock would “walk a lot”, climb ropes up Boabab trees and lift whatever weights he could get his hands on.
He used the anti-poaching scouts gear a few times and also borrowed the weights set of a neighbour’s absent son.
“I improvised,” Pocock said. “It wasn’t a huge focus but I just kept things ticking over. Although, yeah, the first two weeks here (in Japan) were a rude shock. But I am loving being back into it.”
Pocock, who also spent a week in Boston doing a Harvard business leadership course, is now back in the swing of rugby again. He hasn’t put on a kilo or lost one even.
So has the sabbatical been worth it? Has Pocock refilled the motivational gas tank after a soul-enriching stint in Africa?
“I think so. I have certainly enjoyed it and I feel like it was the right decision,” Pocock said.
“I am very, very grateful for the opportunity. I am lucky. The goal was to get away and then hopefully be able to really contribute leading up to the World Cup. I guess time will tell whether that happens but I am really keen to get back into it. I am excited about what lies ahead.
“I have enjoyed getting back into rugby again and I feel fresh. You certainly get a new sense of the opportunities that we have as rugby players to do what we love doing.”
WiFi may have been patchy but it didn’t escape the attention of Pocock that Australian rugby has been wallowing in the mud for most of his absence.
“I have stayed in touch with a few guys. There’s no denying the fact it has been a tough year,” Pocock said.
“It’s hard when you’re not part of it but while it’s been challenging, from what I can see there have been some real positives come out of it.
Take the backrow — there’s been a bunch of young guys given opportunities and that will only make us stronger. I really believe that. I think we’ll get back up there.”
— Daily Telegraph (Australia)