The Roar
The Roar


VIDEO ANALYSIS: Why David Pocock is the best forward in Australia

Are the Aussies really as bad as they seem in Super Rugby? (AAP Image/Joel Carrett)
1st March, 2016
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One of the best pieces of tactical planning I encountered over the past five years as an England analyst/advisor was the All Blacks’ handling of David Pocock at the 2011 World Cup semi-final.

Pocock was coming off one of the great open-side performances against South Africa in the previous round, but the New Zealand coaching group had a special strategy designed for him.

They had Richie McCaw cutting across his natural running lines to the breakdown, forwards pinning him to the ground as players got to their feet after breakdowns; they moved the point of attack away from him so he was forced to become a line defender rather than a jackal competing over the ball.

Pocock became so frustrated that he began committing to losing causes at the ruck and haemorrhaging penalties for failing to stay on his feet or release the tackled player. The effort the All Blacks put into countering a special player was a special compliment by the best team in the world.

Fast forward to the first round of Super Rugby 2016, and nothing much has changed, except that David Pocock is even better than he was in 2011.

Leaving aside Pocock’s impregnable one man cleanouts on attack, his phenomenal ability to stay on his feet and sustain power positions at both the defensive breakdown and the driving maul were key to no less than six of the Brumbies tries against last year’s champion Hurricanes in Round 1.

Let’s take a look at the quality of Pocock’s work in the game against the ‘Canes.

Stickability at the defensive breakdown


Despite conceding eight penalties and two yellow cards at the defensive breakdown (including one for Pocock in the 77th minute), incredibly the Brumbies still came out in credit in this area with 11 takeaways – two of which led directly to tries at the other end.

The above clip illustrates just how much influence David Pocock exerts on the opposition breakdown – and how he creates an officiating problem for the referee in this area!

Frequently it takes three or four opposition players to clean him out of the tackle area. Whenever he can, Pocock will set up opposite the first receiver so he can go either way to jackal for the ball when it goes to ground.

At 5:08, it takes four Hurricanes to remove him even though he’s had to run back 10 metres or so to reach the tackle area. This is vital against New Zealand sides, who like to play through a succession of mini-rucks at a high tempo with no more than two men committed to any one breakdown.

In the second instance at 12:56, there is a seven-second delay because of Pocock’s activity, which means slow ball, more numbers and higher speed on the defensive line – and the inevitable turnover on next phase.

Low centre of gravity, strength in the lower body
Even after the kick return later in the same sequence, Pocock is back on the ball when it comes wide. Brad Shields goes to ground, Pocock makes the tackle but is able to stand up over the ball despite the attentions of three Hurricanes support players. It is a feat of tremendous strength in the lower body, almost like performing a squat lift on the rugby field, and it costs the ‘Canes another five-second delay in presenting the ball to TJ Perenara.


The result is excellent line-speed for the Brumbies, with the highest defender 12 metres behind the site of the ruck on the second pass and a handling error forced out of Julian Savea by the pressure. The Brumbies scored their first try from the following lineout position.

Getting top position at the first ruck
The play at 26:23 from a first phase lineout shows how important it is for the defensive openside flanker to get top position, ahead of his opposite number, at the first midfield ruck.

Pocock shoulders his way ahead of Ardie Savea and he’s first on to the ball with Savea unable to execute the body roll required to get him off it. The result is a turnover, and a kick by Henry Speight gaining the position for the Brumbies’ second score from a 5-metre scrum.

In the example from the scrum four minutes earlier, TJ Perenara had won the battle for top position at 22:05, knocking Pocock off his running line and making him a split second too late to the tackle area; penalty Hurricanes!

Vision and running power
When Cory Jane makes a mistake from a Hurricanes lineout at 59:05, the game has been going for an hour and David Pocock is standing about 30 metres from his own goal-line. At 59:14, he has sprinted over 50 metres and he is the third Brumby to arrive from the chase.

He makes the decisive contribution, firing Tevita Kuridrani clean through the tackle area like some kind of ballistic missile, while still staying on his feet to win the turnover. There is no question the Brumbies should have scored again from the position Pocock created.

A question of refereeing priorities?
The next two clips illustrate the difficulty officials have in reffing Pocock at the breakdown. At a World Cup or in the Rugby Championship, I have little doubt that he would be rewarded with a turnover penalty at 53:39 and the decision to call him for ‘no release’ looks contrived to fit the ‘Reward the Attacking Side’ brief under which Super Rugby refs seem to operate.


The yellow card decision at the end of the game is slightly more reasonable, though it’s still ironic in the context of a match to which he made such a hugely positive contribution.

The engine in the Brumbies driving maul

Most of the Brumbies’ most positive moments on their own lineout ball featured David Pocock as a key figure from the “+1” position at acting half-back.

The first point of interest in the Brumbies “+1” lineouts, with Pocock in as the acting halfback, is that he is not the ball-carrier or ‘driver’ of the maul.

Typically the +1 will slip backwards with the hooker swinging around and slotting in ahead of him as the drive sets up, but this is now considered to be obstruction, and hence an offence under the new rules for the 2016 tournament.

Whether by accident or design, David Pocock has now become the ‘engine’ rather than the ‘driver’ of the maul and it suits his lower body strength and ability to stay on his feet admirably.


The rear seal and the engine
The Brumbies’ effectiveness on the drive from lineout is based on achieving a very tight seal on the outside corner of the catcher. This is the most important event at a lineout drive because it protects the driving side’s ability to roll the ball infield without the fear of being forced into touch.

So at 51:10 the rear seal on Jordan Smiler is made by Sam Carter, who is already well ahead of Smiler as he returns to earth. Even though the Hurricanes force the Brumbies back a few metres on the angle, it doesn’t matter. Scott Fardy reinforces that outside seal and Pocock becomes the engine after relaying the ball back to Stephen Moore. This allows the Brumbies to pick their moment to break out around the open corner at 51:18.

The same situation is duplicated at 65:10, with another catch by Smiler and another good seal by Carter on the outside. As soon as Pocock slips the ball back to ‘driver’ Josh Mann-Rea, his immense leg strength and core stability does the rest as the engine erupts around the corner at 65:16.

In my opinion, David Pocock is the best forward in Australia and he is the one forward the All Blacks would accept without any qualms in their starting team – especially now that Richie has retired.

Moreover, I believe Pocock has the strength to play international rugby as a hooker, if he so desired.

His area of influence on rugby matches has grown steadily since I began to analyse his play back in 2011, and it was already significant back then.

His one-man cleanouts are impenetrable and he can function as both a ball-handler and the maul engine from the +1 position at attacking lineouts. He is comfortable defending the wide channels and in closing transition zones to the first back, and his work at the defensive breakdown is so strong that it asks serious questions of the officiating – refs are now having to come up with some pretty complicated reasons to penalise him and limit his influence on the game!


With Pocock part of a well-balanced back-row with Scott Fardy and Ita Vaea, and the Brumbies’ depth the front row – with two front rows of almost equal ability able to sustain pressure for the full 80 minutes at scrum-time (they won seven penalties against the Hurricanes) – the Brumbies look comfortably the best-equipped of any Australian side up front.

Add to this an all-international backline, with only one potential weakness at fullback, and only a bad run of injuries, or an act of God, can stop them winning their home conference at a canter!

Nick Bishop has worked as a rugby analyst and advisor to Graham Henry (1999-2003), Mike Ruddock (2004-2005) and most recently Stuart Lancaster (2011-2015). He also worked on the 2001 British & Irish Lions tour to Australia and produced his first rugby book with Graham Henry at the end of the tour. Three more rugby books have followed, all of which of have either been nominated for or won national sports book awards. Nick’s latest is a biography of Phil Larder, the first top Rugby League coach to successfully transfer over to Union, entitled “The Iron Curtain”.