A week on from David Pocock’s second John Eales Medal triumph, two things have become perfectly clear. The first is, the Wallabies will be absolutely no chance at the Rugby World Cup without him and, secondly, time is fast running out for administrators to improve player safety at the contact area.
In a year that has already seen Wales skipper Sam Warburton forced into retirement at just 29 years of age, Pocock, too, is aware he may also be on borrowed time.
“It’s an incredibly physical sport and it does take its toll,” Pocock told reporters after claiming his second John Eales Medal last week. “I guess I’ve really tried to be smart around diet and looking after my body, and all that other kind of stuff. And I think that definitely helps; as far as beyond next year, I’m really not sure.”
No one would begrudge Pocock retirement or the chance to take up a lucrative European or Japanese contract after next year’s World Cup. At 31, it would be a massive ask for him to push on to France in 2023 given the way he plays the game.
For a player who has already been through two knee reconstructions and is now battling persistent neck complaints, the desire to want to live a healthy and pain-free life once his rugby days are done is clearly at the forefront of his mind, too. That’s only been heightened by Warburton’s shock decision.
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“I was really sad to hear about Sam having to retire, I guess it’s something you think about as a player,” Pocock said last week. “You’re putting yourself in positions where you are vulnerable, that’s the nature of what you’re trying to do out there on the field.”
Pocock and Warburton have both played in the fashion championed by the likes of All Blacks great Richie McCaw and long-time Wallabies rival George Smith. There have been plenty of others, too, but few have impacted the game in the way the trans-Tasman duo did so.
They created the breakdown approach the likes of Sean O’Brien, Sam Cane, Ardie Savea and others all follow; putting themselves in the firing line the same way Pocock does and Warburton did.
But as the game rightfully looks for answers to its concussion concerns with ideas about lowering the tackle height to the nipple and a rethink of the TMO system, World Rugby administrators have seemingly forgotten about the breakdown.
More to the point, referees have either deemed the concept of “through the gate” an afterthought or that an opposition player attempting a breakdown steal is fair game from any direction. In farming they call them strainer posts – the two pillars that provide the gate entry point – but the only strain currently at work in professional rugby is that which is being applied to a jackal with his head over the ball.
One of the beauties of the modern-day No. 7 is his willingness to latch onto the ball, his head and neck badly exposed, while as many as three or more players try to knock him out of the way. From a north-south direction, there is absolutely no problem with that. But when players like Pocock are being hit from side-on, or wrestled by the neck in a kind of crocodile death-roll, they are badly at risk.
Despite being the subject of many of these attempted clear-outs, Pocock has, admirably, bitten his tongue when asked whether he was being cleaned out illegally or whether officials should be taking a closer look. A good starting point would be to simply start refereeing the gate once again. The force players must absorb front-on is great enough that they shouldn’t have to content with shots from the side, or chicken-wing style wrestling scrawls where a clean-out has been unsuccessful in its initial contact point.
A greater focus on “the gate” should be applied in November and right through until the World Cup after which perhaps the whole breakdown contest can be unpacked.
But in a year where Warburton walked away at 29 and Pocock returned from a year off to rocket to the biggest John Eales Medal win of all time, it’s clear rugby simply can’t ignore what’s happening.
If nothing is done, then the day of the jackal may soon be at its end.