Even before he’d made his Super Rugby debut, David Pocock was making news in Australian rugby.
Except you didn’t know him as David Pocock initially – on one January afternoon in 2006, he was Zander Peden.
The key figure in the Wallabies’ bid to beat the All Blacks in the Rugby World Cup final, Pocock has played like a man among boys at times this tournament, stamping himself as the most-influential player in world rugby.
But it was his time as a boy, ready to play with the men, which first alerted some to this complex character.
As an already muscular 17-year-old, who earned the nickname Bam Bam, Pocock was banned from making his Super Rugby debut.
Just as he is the first to the breakdown, ready to pilfer possession on a weekly basis, Pocock was simply ahead of everyone else but rules dictated he wasn’t allowed to take the field until his 18th birthday.
He did anyway, playing a trial for the Western Force against the Cheetahs under the name of Zander Peden, who had been named but subsequently ruled out through injury.
The only problem was a Sydney newspaper ran a giant photo from the trial match and, despite only getting on the field for 10 minutes, Pocock featured prominently and an Australian Rugby Union (ARU) staff member quickly cottoned on to the ruse.
“That didn’t go well for the Force,” he smiles.
“There was a bit of carry on and they said you had to be 18 to play.”
He sat out much of the season, playing instead for Australia at the under-19s World Cup in Dubai, before making his full debut after his 18th birthday in the final round of the season.
Soon after, the rules were changed and 17-year-olds Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor were the beneficiaries.
In the ensuing decade, the Zimbabwean-born star has divided public opinion over his diverse world views – while helping to unite Australian rugby thanks to his incredible on-field talent.
He played for the Force for seven seasons before making an emotional move to the Brumbies, where he’s been for the past three years.
He’s captained the Wallabies and had his career halted for two years by torn ACLs in the same knee in successive seasons, but attacked his rehab with such vigour that he, seemingly, has come back even stronger and Australia’s World Cup hopes rest on his broad shoulders.
“It seems like a long time. It’s been an amazing journey,” Pocock admits.
Pocock has also been a polarising figure who appears more at home discussing goals like eliminating homophobia in sport and championing the use of clean energy – though his love of rugby is often underrated because of his extra-curricular activities.
His interests outside rugby have rubbed people the wrong way, notably when he was arrested last year after chaining himself to mining equipment in a coal protest, incurring a warning from the ARU.
He’s been challenged over his open views on homophobia in sport, and was criticised in some quarters for calling out Jacques Potgieter mid-game over a homophobic sledge, which led to the NSW Waratahs’ forward copping a $20,000 fine.
Even with the biggest match of his career looming, Pocock on Thursday couldn’t resist a cheeky pot-shot at former prime minister Tony Abbott over the asylum seeker debate on Twitter.
Pocock truly loves rugby union, and credits it with teaching him about teamwork, discipline and trust, as well as being the way he made friends after arriving in Australia as a 14-year-old.
He believes he’s found the right balance, even if his vegetable garden has been badly neglected following a busier-than-usual schedule this World Cup year.
But how would he like to be remembered?
As a World Cup winner, and player of the tournament, as could eventuate on Saturday?
Or as an activist who tried to change the world and wasn’t afraid to cop public criticism on controversial issues?
“I’ll leave that to other judges. We’ll wait and see,” he says.