ACT Brumbies and Australian Wallabies flanker David Pocock says he didn't expect public backlash to his on-field stance against homophobia, but says he's prepared to cop criticism if it means standing up for his beliefs.
Pocock revealed he'd spoken with NSW Waratahs forward Jacques Potgieter last weekend about the fallout from the homophobic slur incident, which occurred in March, but held nothing against the South African forward.
Instead, Pocock hopes his "split-second decision" to make an on-field complaint to the referee about Potgieter's comments can have a positive and lasting effect on sport, helping to create a more inclusive environment for people struggling with their sexuality.
In an in-depth interview while on tour in South Africa, Pocock also addressed:
- social media criticism from News Corp columnist Miranda Devine
- his World Cup selection battle with incumbent Test captain Michael Hooper
- his preference to remain with the ACT Brumbies and play finals
In November last year Pocock made headlines when he was arrested for taking part in a coal-mine protest at Maules Creek, NSW, chaining himself to mining equipment.
The charges were dismissed in February, but Pocock admits he made the decision to protest knowing the drama it would cause.
"You weigh up the cost of it and whether you think the message is the right thing to do," Pocock said.
"With the coal mining protest, I knew there would be backlash. But I knew signing up with those farmers, it was the right thing to do.
"With the Jacques incident, it was totally not premeditated and I wasn't expecting backlash."
Pocock became the central figure of homophobia in sport in March when he made an on-field complaint about Waratahs player Potgieter using slurs.
Pocock's conversation with the referee was captured by on-field cameras, Potgieter later admitting he'd used the word "faggot". He was fined $10,000 by the ARU.
"It certainly blew up a lot more than what I thought it would," Pocock said. "I honestly didn't think it would go past an on-field incident.
"One of the funny things about what happened was that it became that I was pushing the incident. [Brumbies captain] Stephen Moore initially raised it, Scott Fardy mentioned it as well. As players, we're really keen to make a stand and say that homophobia or any sort of discrimination isn't acceptable.
"In the heat of battle, for you to dig deep and that's the worst thing you can come up with, that's a pretty sad reflection of our culture."
Despite criticism he should have left the incident on the field, Pocock never named the NSW player in question.
Pocock said Potgieter deserved credit for accepting responsibility for his actions and for visiting the Sydney Convicts, Australia's first gay rugby club. The pair spoke after their most recent Super Rugby clash, in Canberra last weekend.
"We had a good chat ... It was just about education to him, once it was explained he was remorseful.
"My issue wasn't with [Potgieter]. The good thing is that it got people talking.
"Sport is at its best when it's challenging society to become more inclusive. The more of those conversations we have, the better. There's a lot of young players out there struggling with their sexuality and they need to at least have a safe environment to enjoy themselves on the sports-field.
"It's been a cultural thing, but I think we're starting to see a shift and that's really exciting for me."
Pocock admits he may have handled it differently had he known the backlash it would create, but he doesn't regret standing up for his beliefs. Pocock has made a stand that he won't get married until Australia's same-sex marriage laws are changed.
"Would I have handled it differently given the backlash? Maybe. But in hindsight I'm glad I stood up for gay players potentially in the Brumbies or 'Tahs and I guess gay players all over Australia playing rugby.
"On the field I made a split-second decision to talk to the referee about it. I didn't feel what happened was right or acceptable.
"Unfortunately what I thought was a good message of not tolerating homophobia in sport became polarising. The reality is you've got to cop criticism on the chin.
"In the wash up, the letters and emails that the Brumbies and I received from people all through the community - gay rugby players, parents with gay kids - there's a growing acknowledgment of wanting to shift societal attitudes towards homophobia, and not just in sport."
Pocock accepts his strong beliefs can also make him a polarising character.
He was shocked when News Limited columnist Miranda Devine labelled him "a tosser" on social media last month for a post-try celebration after scoring a hat-trick against the Otago Highlanders.
Devine alleged Pocock had used jazz hands after scoring a try, but he later explained he was using Auslan - Australian sign language - to send a message to a hearing impaired friend. 'Jazz hands' was actually the sign for clapping and celebration.
"I was really surprised by that. The amount of stuff guys do after they score tries … you can do a backflip or a turtle or whatever guys do," Pocock said.
"I've got nothing against Miranda Devine. I genuinely just wanted to correct her [on Twitter] and say that wasn't my intention, I was just saying hello to a mate.
"That's okay. It's the medium of Twitter. There's plenty of nasty stuff on there and that's fun. I had a good laugh.
"You've got to choose whose opinions you value. If one of my brothers or [partner] Emma or my parents said that I was a tosser for doing something on the field. I'd probably really consider it.
"But if your self-worth is tied up in largely anonymous people on Twitter, it can be pretty hurtful, but that's someone's opinion and that's okay."
The Brumbies are keen to re-sign Pocock, coach Stephen Larkham declaring the former Test captain is back to career-best form after two knee reconstructions in two years.
Pocock had played a total of just five matches in 2013 and 2014, the 27-year-old revealing the ARU wanted to see him return to fitness before negotiating.
"I have certainly thought about my future and have been talking to the Brumbies. At the start of the season the ARU said they wanted to see me get through half the season before they made an offer or decided anything.
"We're just waiting for them to come back to us. [Canberra] is the preferred place. We've really loved the last three years despite me not playing."
Pocock also missed four weeks this season with an ankle injury, but says he now approaches every game "as a milestone and celebration".
"When you have long-term injuries, you really appreciate being able to get out there and play," Pocock said.
"When you play a full season, by the end of it you're better at making the right decisions more often.
"That will come with time. I was always pretty confident that if I got back out there and enjoyed my rugby, those things [form] are instinctual."
As the World Cup approaches later this year, Pocock is locked in a battle with incumbent Wallabies captain Michael Hooper for the Australian No.7 jersey.
Pocock said the depth of openside flankers in Australian rugby – including Liam Gill and Matt Hodgson –was best for the Wallabies.
"I think every rugby player's goal in Australia is to make the World Cup. Not just to make it, but to do well. I'd be lying if I said that wasn't a goal of mine," Pocock said.
"But there's no point getting distracted by that. Selections happen after Super Rugby.
"My mindset when I was injured was that if I could get my body right and get back out there, I knew I could step back up to whatever level I needed to step up to."
Despite his individual accolades, Pocock has never played in Super Rugby finals. he was injured as the Brumbies played in the 2013 grand final in 2013 and the semi-final last year.
The Brumbies' finals hopes are on the line ahead of their clash against the Cape Town Stormers at Newlands on Sunday morning Australian time.
It's Pocock's first trip to South Africa since 2012 with the Western Force and he's relishing the opportunity to resume his regular playing duties.
"Absolutely I definitely want to play finals, we've got a good opportunity this week.
"I was pretty excited about the trip and I'm really enjoying it. It's a huge game for us this weekend so the preparation takes priority.
"It's definitely not desperation, to be honest, the next four games after it are really big for us. We have to start on [Sunday morning]. We've got a lot of respect for the Stormers."