Relationships made through Rugby are so often bigger than the game itself, and never has that sentiment been more true than when assessing the friendship and brotherhood that exists between Brumbies and Wallabies stars Christian Leali’ifano and David Pocock.
These two men are very different Australians; one, with Samoan heritage, was born in Auckland and raised in Melbourne before shifting to Canberra. The other was born in Zimbabwe, moved to Brisbane via South Africa and started his Rugby career in Perth before also landing in Canberra.
However, the bond between these two is incredibly special.
As Pocock returns to play his first game of professional Rugby in Australia in over eighteen months, and also reaches 100 Super Rugby caps this Saturday against the Waratahs, we spoke to Leali’ifano about their relationship and the significance of his return to action for the Brumbies, and the milestone.
“Our last game together was the Quarter Final against the Highlanders at home in 2016,” Leali’ifano tells RUPA. “I got sick the following month, and then he was going on his sabbatical, but to now be back here again following both of our journeys and to be getting ready for his 100th Super Rugby game is unbelievable.”
‘Getting sick’ is how Christian explains his battle with leukaemia, a battle which saw his Rugby career and mortality brought into sharp focus, but which he ultimately defeated. He returned to action for the Brumbies just eleven months later, and after a stint with Ulster in Northern Ireland over the Australian summer which was designed to help him gather more match practice, he’s been back to his best and played every game for the Brumbies so far this season.
Pocock hasn’t been out there with him, however; his 2017 was spent on a sabbatical from Australian Rugby, which featured study, a stint playing for Panasonic in Japan and a lot of time back home in Southern Africa. Upon his return to Australia, Pocock underwent minor knee surgery, delaying his 2018 season until this weekend.
Back in late 2016, when Christian was in Melbourne undergoing a successful bone marrow transplant, Pocock was one of his most treasured visitors and the circumstances of him being there have to be read to be believed.
“His visit really did mean the absolute world to me,” Leali’ifano says. “So many people reached out when I was sick, and I did have lots who could visit, but the extreme effort he made to come and see me in Melbourne was really, really humbling and blew me away. My family and I still talk about it now, about how special it was as we were going through such a tough time. We had been in constant contact the whole time that he was away on the Wallabies’ Spring Tour, and he kept saying that he wanted to come and visit me before he went away (on his sabbatical).
“He flew straight from London to Melbourne, spent the entire day with me, and then flew straight to Japan the next day and made his debut for Panasonic the following weekend!
“He put me and my wellbeing ahead of himself and his travel schedule, when really he could have been taking some time out to refresh himself after a massive year of Rugby, and I can never thank him enough for his time; nothing could ever repay that.
“Those moments are really special and to me that’s why he is truly one of my closest friends and a brother. People saying that actions are louder than words, and when you put it into that kind of context and think about how amazing that was for me and my family it’s something that I will never, ever forget.”
Pocock and Leali’ifano haven’t always been friends though; they were adversaries back in teenage Rugby, when Christian first came up against a Queensland Schoolboys star who already had a massive reputation.
“We were laughing about this the other day, but when we were about sixteen years old we played against each other at the Schoolboy championships in Canberra, and while he was coming off the back of a scrum I stepped him with my left foot, and I’ve never let him forget it!
“He was already the talk of the town through that age group, and not long after that he signed with the Western Force straight out of school. To see him progress through his career has been unreal to watch and not surprising at all, and when you get to know him and play against him as an opponent, you get to see the quality of player he is.”
Pocock’s character off the field has also seen him spark plenty of debate. He was once arrested over an environmental protest, called out an opponent on the field for making a homophobic slur, and insisted he wouldn’t get hitched to his partner Emma until same-sex marriage was legal in Australia.
“He’s a man of conviction, and that is something that I really admire. He is so loyal to his values, and what he believes in and what he believes so strongly about, and to him he isn’t worried about what everybody else thinks of him, or what the public expect him to say or do.
“I think that’s actually quite difficult to achieve in society these days, to stand up for something that you truly believe in and never waver, and that’s part of how powerful he is as a person. The other side of that is that he has never made anybody feel uncomfortable about his views or forced his opinions on people, and respects those who don’t necessarily agree with him, and that is so consistent with everything he stands for.
“It’s quite remarkable the journey he has been on, from a young fella born in Zimbabwe to then moving to Australia and growing up in Brisbane. His upbringing has been phenomenal, and his parents and brothers have done an amazing job.
“His conviction has given him the opportunity to do some incredible things, and I buzz out that he’s met people like Desmond Tutu and Sir David Attenborough. I hear that he’s meeting all these people and I’m like ‘what the hell’! Those types of opportunities he has had are truly remarkable, and what an amazing human he is to earn them.”
Leali’ifano is one of only 51 other players to reach a century of Super Rugby appearances for Australian teams, and he is truly excited about celebrating the milestone and seeing Pocock back in the Brumbies jersey this weekend.
“It will be a really special moment, but David would never want to make it about him or to take away from the team with the spotlight on him. I think he will certainly take a business-as-usual approach to playing footy again, and to running out in front of our Brumbies fans and our friends and family.
“I know he is really grateful for the opportunity to pull on the Brumbies jersey again, and I know that all of his teammates are very grateful to have him back. It will be special to share it with him and run out on to the field alongside him, we will probably have a moment out there we soak it in quickly, but then it won’t be until after the game, and after hopefully a nice win, when we can celebrate and maybe have a beer together.
“The journey we both have been on makes this week even more special for me,” Leali’ifano continues. “He knows how grateful I am to have him back in the Brumbies mix, as playing together again was something that we thought might never happen.
“A lot of people talk about defining Rugby success through World Cups and Championships, but for me personally I believe that being part of these kind of moments is a lot more special because of the connection and attachment you have to it. Everybody chases a team goal to win titles, and that’s awesome, but I think to be a part of somebody’s milestone or career highlight is to me something I will cherish more and remember more when it’s all over, this one even more so because of our relationship together.”
Importantly, from a football perspective, Christian believes his great mate is cherry ripe to resume his role as one of the most talented players in the world.
“It’s been quite funny to hear all the different opinions in the media and the general public about him going on his sabbatical, and about him having surgery since he got back.
“For me, he looks truly refreshed. He has gone away, and he has experienced a lot of things that only he can explain, but he has come back with a different perspective on his footy. I truly believe that his best is still yet to come; Rugby certainly won’t define him, but I am really excited to see what he can bring.”
In closing, Leali’ifano summarises just how much their relationship means to him.
“I’m obviously a team mate and a friend so I am biased, but seeing the way he carries himself, what he is all about and the way he plays footy I just admire everything about him. I’m truly grateful that David is in my life, and I can’t speak highly enough of him.”
From everybody at RUPA, our heartiest congratulations to David Pocock on reaching a century of Super Rugby caps – a brilliant achievement!
David Pocock Fact File:
Born: Gweru, Zimbabwe, April 23rd 1988
Super Rugby Caps: 99*
Super Rugby Points: 90 (18 tries)
Wallaby Caps: 66
Wallaby Points: 35 (7 tries)