“Better people make better All Blacks”. That was the mantra adopted by Graham Henry and his coaching group when he realized something was wrong with the All Blacks’ culture back in 2004.
It had got so bad that discipline was breaking down, drinking was rife and senior players were threatening to leave. We all know now what impact the change of outlook and a renewed sense of connection with life and responsibility in the outside world has had on the New Zealand team. Since then, the All Blacks have been winning 85 per cent plus of their matches.
Some of the cardinal points in Henry’s new policy were humility – a willingness to ‘sweep the sheds’ after training – a stronger sense of extended family (whanau) which often meant selection based on character more than talent, and the constant drive for self-improvement and small, incremental gains on a personal level.
No-one epitomised Henry’s philosophy better than hooker Keven Mealamu, a player he had known from his days as coach of the Blues. Mealamu was a talented artist at the same time as he fulfilled his higher-profile role as one of toughest number twos in world rugby. He has illustrated seven books to raise money for Auckland’s Starship Children’s Hospital.
When he ran out for his record-breaking 163rd Super Rugby cap for the Blues, he was surrounded by Samoan family members, friends and some those players (like Andrew Blowers) who had accompanied him on his 17-year rugby journey, his extended family.
“Keven’s a very humble person and he never gets ahead of himself, he always thinks he can self-improve,” Henry said back in 2015.
“He’s got a marvellous relationship with his wife and kids and the extended family and people in general, because he’s got an incredible amount of respect. Because he spends the time with people, spends the time with young rugby players that are coming through the Blues and the All Blacks… He’s a marvellous example-setter, not only in the way he plays the game but in his character. He’s a special man.”
All Blacks who broke faith with the new code of behaviour were sent to Keven Mealamu to make their confessions of guilt. But they did not go to be judged, only to be in the presence of a person who knew intimately what ‘the law’ really meant.
By that token, it must be doubted whether Israel Folau’s harsh judgement of gay people on Instagram has any weight.
If we want a perspective from an Australian source who truly obeys the ‘rules’ of humility, extended family and self-improvement, we would turn away from Folau and towards David Pocock.
David Pocock is used to adversity – he was forced to flee his homeland Zimbabwe back in 2002 to avoid likely extermination during the violent government-sponsored ‘land reforms’ of the era – and he has used his profile in the game subsequently to help the lot of others.
His ‘extended family’ of interests has ranged from work to protect the white rhino and the health of the food and water chain in Zimbabwe, to participation in campaigns for action on climate change, to a very public support for gay rights and the legalizing of gay marriage. Pocock and his partner Emma Palandri steadfastly refused to sign documents legalizing their own marriage until their gay acquaintances were able to do the same.
There is very little judgement left in David Pocock because of his history. He still has fond memories of Zimbabwe and visits his homeland every year, even though a close family friend was killed in the process of ‘land redistribution’ only ten kilometres away from the Pocock farm, and his son was shot nine times by ‘war veterans’ but still survived.
Pocock’s solution, instead of judging, was to go back to Zimbabwe and set up a charity, Eighty Twenty Vision, in conjunction with the WHO. It now helps people with issues as diverse as cholera, maternal health and the security of the water supply:
“I think it’s crucial to have something outside of rugby. By nature, sportsmen can be pretty selfish, and to a large extent you have to be,” Pocock told the Canberra Times in 2015.
“You have to be focused on what you’re doing to get results, but it gives you some perspective to have something that you’re passionate about outside sport.”
David Pocock is a step up from Israel Folau as a role model for Australian youngsters. He is also probably further advanced in terms of his drive towards self-improvement as a rugby player, the other category stressed by Graham Henry and exemplified by Keven Mealamu.
The weekend game between the Brumbies and Brad Thorn’s resurgent Reds illustrated how quickly Pocock is coming to terms with the new laws at the breakdown, which stood to neutralize his outstanding point of strength, the ability to steal ball on the floor at the tackle.
Pocock had no pilfers in the game, but that didn’t prevent him from the being the single most important player on the pitch. On attack, he showed some neat touches through the hands, carried well close to the goal-line, and added significant power to the Brumbies driving lineout. Defensively, he made a game-leading 18 tackles with no misses, closed all the transition zones recovered a forced fumble and saved two tries near the Brumbies’ goal-line.
The match provided more evidence that those number sevens who rely exclusively on their pilfering ability on the deck may soon find themselves out of work. David Pocock had only six on-ball attempts during the 80 minutes. He attracted one penalty when he was cleaned out illegally from the side:
However, he was also a part of two jackaling attempts where the penalty went the other way:
In the first example, Sam Carter is pinged for not rolling away from the ball, in the second it is Pocock himself who is sanctioned for the same offence. Judging when to have a dip at the ball on the ground is no easy matter under the new laws! The window of opportunity has narrowed considerably.
David Pocock’s ability to defend next to the first back in the line is, in my experience, out of the top drawer. Quite simply, there is nobody better at protecting that sensitive space from the last forward (typically) to the number ten. Often the opponent will try to introduce his strongest ball-carriers there, and this is what the Reds did with first Samu Kerevi (in the example above), then Jono Lance:
…and finally Aidan Toua:
The tackle on Toua is a try-saver, with Pocock not only closing a large gap between himself and Christian Lealiifano but also managing to slap the ball loose in contact. Fortunately, the referee did not see that it was the “hand of God” which knocked the ball backwards into Kerevi’s hands!
Pocock also showed that he is thinking his way around the new breakdown laws by using more hold-up tackles – in this example turning over Caleb Timu close the Brumbies’ goal-line:
…and dropping out of the contest at a time when I’m sure he would have persisted under the old laws:
Once that first support player is standing above the ball-carrier, there is far less incentive for the defender to continue to compete for the ball on the floor than there was previously.
On the offensive side of the ball, Pocock remains the most devastating first-man ‘cleaner’ in the game:
Here he hits Samu Kerevi hard under the plane of the shoulders on the first phase before ‘scissoring’ the arms to prevent the Reds’ centre getting a grip on the ball. Kerevi is very firmly deposited on the GIO Stadium turf – the fate of most defenders after a Pocock cleanout.
The impact of David Pocock’s other contributions on attack can be illustrated with reference to the highlight reel from the game:
It was probably no accident that the Brumbies’ driving lineout suddenly developed some momentum with David Pocock standing in the ‘+1’ spot at halfback, after stuttering badly for the first part of the season (0:50 and 3:00 on the reel).
Even if his contribution is blindside of the camera in the first instance, in the second there is little doubt about his ability to bully a much bigger man (number five Kane Douglas) away from the ball on the drive.
He was also effective in close-range situations, twice carrying Izack Rodda backwards to set up one try and score the second himself (1:38 and 3:40). There was also evidence of more accuracy and refinement than previously in his link play on the pass, particularly in the build-up to the try at 2:20.
In the Gospel of John, when the Pharisees set a trap for Jesus by presenting an adulteress and asking Jesus to condemn her to death by stoning, according to Mosaic law, he replied, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” They slunk away “being convicted by their own conscience,” until not one accuser was left.
When the story was repeated in a peculiarly modern version on Instagram, Israel Folau fell headlong into it and condemned gay people to the prospect of Hell.
Perhaps Folau’s tremendous God-given athletic talents, which have allowed him to succeed at three different contact sports, have ultimately held back his development as just a rugby player. The complete rugby players, and the better role models, are the ones who are a success both on and off the field; the Keven Mealamus and the David Pococks.
They are characterized by a certain humility of outlook – a desire to ‘sweep the sheds’, if you like – a wish to embrace their ‘extended families’ beyond the game, and that unquenchable thirst for self-improvement in the small details on the field.
We still do not know whether Israel Folau has all of those attributes, and therefore we cannot say whether he will satisfy that other great All Black demand – that he “leave the jersey in a better place” at the end of his career.
Keven Mealamu achieved that feat, and so will David Pocock when retires. But Israel Folau? Right now, the mystique of that number 15 jersey still belongs to Doctor Alec Ross, Roger Gould and, in more recent times, Matt Burke and Chris Latham.