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David Pocock: '450 crunches a night, or else I was going to get fat'

ABC News ABC News 22/02/2016 Winsome Denyer

David Pocock with partner Emma Pocock on safari in Zimbabwe. David is patron of SAVE African Rhino Foundation. © Winsome Denyer/ABC News David Pocock with partner Emma Pocock on safari in Zimbabwe. David is patron of SAVE African Rhino Foundation. David Pocock is a difficult man to pigeonhole.

Rugby Union stardom aside, he is increasingly becoming known as an environmental activist, a gay rights supporter, a humanitarian and a mean veggie gardener.

For rugby followers, there has been shock and disbelief this month over rumours that Pocock is negotiating to take a year off the game in 2017 to study - with plans to return in 2018 in time to be back at his peak for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

While still unconfirmed, it's an unusual tactic for an international rugby player to take a break at the peak of his career.

But a closer look at his upbringing reveals a determination for greatness, and a refusal to be defined by any one talent.

'Freak child' from an early age

David Pocock had an idyllic childhood growing up on his family's farm in Zimbabwe, where rugby was always a part of life.

"Dave was always a freak child, he never used to be able to play with his age group because he used to hurt all the kids," said his younger brother Mike.

"He always used to play up an age group or two, or else all the mums would complain."

From a young age, Pocock was determined to get right to the top.

"I think since seven or eight, I knew that's what I wanted to do after school, was play rugby professionally," he said.

"Even if he lost at a game of cards he'd start crying, so that was an indicator that he was going to achieve something," his grandfather Ian Ferguson said.

"It's very rarely you get a man who gets so dedicated from a very, very young age."

In 2000, political instability led to violence and lawlessness in Zimbabwe, as President Robert Mugabe accelerated his process of land redistribution.

War veterans, who had fought for the country's independence, began to invade white-owned farms.

Across the country, white farmers and black farm workers were evicted from their homes, beaten, and many were murdered.

Fearing for their lives, the Pococks made the decision to flee their homeland, and start a new life in Australia.

A growing obsession

As a 14-year-old from a strange background with a frequently mocked accent, David Pocock used sport as a way to fit in at school in Australia.

But his focus on training and diet became more and more obsessive.

"I could justify it, because I wanted to play rugby professionally, I wanted to play for the Wallabies," Pocock explained.

"I had this weird thing that in my head, I had to do 450 crunches a night, or else I was going to get fat, or if I didn't do it, I was mentally weak."

He took on more and more sports at school - rugby, athletics, water polo - waking up early for training each day, and staying back late after school to do gym work.

"It was just crazy trying to fit it all in, and then added in with his obsession with fats," his mother Jane Pocock said.

"I took him to see this sports psychologist because I felt he needed some help, and she said, 'Wow, what an amazingly focused young man, he's just amazing'."

For Pocock, the psychologist reinforced his belief that he was doing what was required to achieve his dream of playing for the Wallabies.

"I thought I was doing everything I could to become the best athlete and the best rugby player, gain lean muscle mass but not get fat," he said.

"I remember him phoning me one afternoon, he had almost passed out at the gym and he was feeling dizzy and weak," said Jane Pocock.

"We started blood tests and investigating, and there was nothing physically wrong. I started realising that he wasn't eating enough for the training he was doing."

Finally Pocock's mother took him to a dietician, who could see there were deeper psychological factors at play.

"(The dietician) was brilliant because she just said to Dave, 'Okay, you want to maintain this level of training, this is how much you have to eat'. And then he religiously stuck to that," Jane said.

"So it didn't solve his emotional, psychological problem around it, but at least it gave his body the strength to do what he was putting his body through."

David Pocock, pictured after Australia defeated Argentina in the 2015 Rugby World Cup semi-final. © Cesar/PikoPress/Rex Images David Pocock, pictured after Australia defeated Argentina in the 2015 Rugby World Cup semi-final. Getting help

Pocock says it wasn't until 2012, well after debuting for the Wallabies in 2008, that he started to seek help to work through those underlying issues.

"When we first met, Dave was on the tail end of his quite obsessive period with food and exercise," his partner Emma Pocock said.

"The thing I noticed quite quickly was that ... when Dave was stressed or felt under a lot of pressure, that would flare up. And it was like, if I can just focus on this, it kind of meets some psychological need to have some degree of control," she said.

Pocock began to see a Jungian analyst in Perth, who helped him go back and deal with the root cause of those anxieties, which stemmed from the trauma he and his family had experienced in Zimbabwe.

"It's not an easy process but it's incredibly rewarding," he said.

"I certainly had to try and make peace with that scared twelve-year-old Dave who lay awake at night, wondering what was going to happen."

Pocock's father Andy said even now at 27 years of age, David walks a fine line between diligence and overtraining.

But he also believes his son's work ethic is one of his greatest strengths.

"I actually have never seen another human being with the same level of diligence. It's just in him, and it seems to be an innate gift he's got in buckets."

What's next?

When asked what David Pocock might do beyond his rugby career, there was no clear or consistent answer from his family and friends.

Whether it's studies in agriculture, humanitarian and environmental work in Zimbabwe, or even a tilt at politics, those close to Pocock say he'll do it with just us much grit and determination as he's shown on the rugby field.

Pocock and his partner Emma told Australian Story they are both interested in exploring the possibility of working in Zimbabwe in the future.

"The intersection of community development and wildlife stuff is really interesting to me," Pocock said.

"I'm doing a Bachelor of Ecological Agricultural Systems ... and Emma having done a Masters in International Development, has a lot of skills in that area.

"But I've hopefully got a few more years of rugby to go, and yeah, we'll explore things in those years and continue to try and be open to things and get involved in things that we enjoy."

"He's worked hard not to be defined as a rugby player," his father Andy Pocock said.

"His profile is a rugby player, he is a Wallaby, but who he is, is this multifaceted person with a very strong social justice conscience."

"At the moment, I think he's the world's best number seven, number eight," said ACT Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham.

"And down the track, I'm sure he's got other interests he wants to pursue, I've no doubt that he will find the edge or whatever's required to become the best at that as well.

"It's really his family, where he's come from, it's the people that influenced him when he was younger, that drives him to be the best he can be."

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