Inside David Pocock's charge at the political ruck

David Pocock during his time with the Wallabies. Dan Mullan/Getty Images

For former Wallabies captain and current independent candidate for the Australian senate David Pocock, the phrase "stick to sports" rings decidedly hollow.

Born in Zimbabwe before moving to Brisbane when he was 14 years old, Pocock retired from Rugby at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020; ending a playing career that had seen him represent the Western Force and ACT Brumbies in Super Rugby and make 83 appearances for the Wallabies.

The sole Wallaby in World Rugby's team of the decade was well known for his activism throughout his playing days on matters such as climate change and LBGBTQIA+ rights -- refusing to officially wed partner Emma until same-sex marriage was legalised in Australia.

And though not initially having retired with political ambitions in mind, he announced his independent candidacy for one of the national capital's -- where he has lived since 2012 -- two places in the Australian Federal senate in December 2021, joining a legacy of Australian athletes that have transitioned from the arena to the chamber.

Retiring member for the Federal seat of Bennelong, John Alexander is a former world number eight in tennis, for instance, and former Hockey star Nova Peris became Australia's first Indigenous woman elected to federal parliament when she became a Senator for the Northern Territory in 2013.

In more contemporary times, former tennis player Sam Groth will be the Liberal Party's candidate for the ultra-marginal seat of Nepean at November's Victorian state election.

There's no question that Pocock's high-profile as an independent candidate has been born off the back of his celebrated Rugby exploits but, as he told ESPN, the perception that athletes and politics don't mix is a vastly mistaken one -- and that sports and those that play them have an important part to play.

"We hear a lot of politicians pushing the line that sports and politics don't mix but I think that's a really convenient one for them," he told ESPN's Beyond The Lead podcast. "They say that when they don't like what's being done or when sports are critical of them.

"The reality is that sport is part of our lives. It's a big part of society and politics is the thing that gives us the society that we have. If you look at the history of sports, it's been a really important part of pushing for a more equal society.

"Whether it was boycotts of apartheid [South Africa], or Jackie Robinson [breaking the colour barrier] in baseball... there's just so many examples over the years. Then obviously, the Black Lives Matter movement brought that to the fore and now we're seeing it with Russia.

"Whether we like it or not, sport is part of society, politics matters and I think sport can play it's part."

One key issue that the 33-year-old believes that athletes, and broader society, can mobilise on is combating climate change and transitioning to a green economy.

The former Wallabies' captain publicly backed the Federal Governments since rescinded Emissions Trading Scheme in 2012 and was once arrested after locking himself to digging equipment at a Maules Creek Mine site in 2014.

In 2021, he spearheaded the launch of the Cool Down campaign, in which nearly 400 athletes from across the Australian sporting landscape came together to use their profiles to encourage more urgent action be taken to combat the changing of the climate.

And while Pocock is hoping to transition his activism from the public square to the legislature, he believes that sports have, and will continue to have, an important role in the conversation.

"I think we all have a role to play," Pockock said. "Because this has been politicised so much it feels like this big issue which is just too hard to deal with. And in many ways for a long time it's been this abstract thing out there that's coming at some point.

"But we're seeing it really impact our everyday lives and when, in terms of sport, [fields] during the last drought were too hard to play on. It's clubs in low lying areas not being able to insure themselves against floods. It's events being cancelled here in Canberra; in 2019 the Raiders and Brumbies had to relocate their entire pre-seasons due to the bushfire smoke. These are things that are already affecting us.

"We all have a role to play in pushing for the kind of action that is going to create the future that we want.

"It's going to create a future with more jobs, we've been sold this lie that it's a cost. This is a huge opportunity for us and I really think that the role that sport can play in that is one, helping to normalise action by just saying this is an issue whether we like it or not.

"We'd prefer to not have to deal with this issue but this is something we've got to deal with. And then secondly, actually playing our part as sports and as sportspeople in dealing with the really tricky issues of how do you actually reduce your footprint as a business, as a sport?

"We're seeing a lot of leadership in Europe and the UK on this, sports are starting to take up that challenge. It's something that we all wish we didn't have to deal with but the challenge is there. It's coming whether we like it or not. And I think it is an opportunity for sport to show leadership in this area."

Of course, even for an individual with as high an existing profile as Pocock, securing a place in the Australian senate is easier said than done -- especially when one is running for one of only two slots allocated to the Australian Capital Territory.

Labor senator and former Chief Minister Katy Gallagher is a prohibitive favourite for one of the two seats and though his margins are much smaller, incumbent Liberal senator Zed Seselja has been in Australia's upper house since 2013.

Independent candidate Kim Rubenstein and the Greens party candidate Tjanara Goreng Goreng are also, ostensibly, competing for the same voters as Pocock.

"I wouldn't be running if I didn't think I was in with a chance," Pocock, who has also made ACT rights one of the key pillars of his platform, explained.

"Katy Gallagher, the Labor senator, picks up her quota very easily. Senator Seselja, over the last two elections, has only got home after, it's like the 25th redistribution of preferences. So there's definitely an opportunity there.

"I think people want to see better representation. They want to see people who actually care about the community, who want to go in there and fight for issues that are important to people here in Canberra. I think people realise we're not currently getting that."