David Pocock's long-awaited return from a rugby sabbatical has hit a roadblock with news he will miss at least the first four rounds of Super Rugby.
The influential openside flanker had surgery on his right knee on Saturday and will spend the next eight to 12 weeks on the sidelines, delaying his playing return until round four at the earliest, but possibly not until the ACT Brumbies' round seven clash with the NSW Waratahs in Canberra at the end of March.
Pocock said he had been carrying the degenerative injury for many months but the Brumbies decided to bite the bullet and do without their big-name back-rower rather than risk losing him later in the team's Super Rugby campaign.
"It's disappointing and frustrating but there's not much I can do," he said. "I've been managing it for ages and I could have kept managing it, but the Brumbies decided they wanted it sorted and for it not to be an issue halfway through the season or towards the back end.
"It's the smart decision, [the surgeon] agreed getting it sorted now would be the best longer-term outcome."
It was not the homecoming anyone wanted for Pocock, whose flexible contract has been the subject of fierce scrutiny in the past two years. The 29-year-old signed a lucrative three-year deal in March 2016 to keep him at the very top of the Australian rugby pay scale alongside Israel Folau, who also signed a flexible contract that included a season in Japan. Pocock took a 12-month break from playing duties in Australia last year before coming home to prepare for two seasons with the Brumbies and Wallabies, which will include the 2019 World Cup.
Pocock and partner Emma spent six months in Zimbabwe, a short stint studying at Harvard, a quick trip to Canada to visit his paternal grandmother and then five months playing for the Panasonic Wild Knights in Japan's Top League.
He confessed to some nerves about how the break would affect him, but stood by the decision to refresh himself mentally and physically.
"It was certainly a risk," he said. "I'd be lying if I didn't say I was a bit apprehensive about that much time away from the game. A big part of wanting to come back via Japan was wanting to get back into things.
"I can totally see where people are coming from when they criticise [sabbaticals] and people are entitled to their opinions. It's something I was keen to do and I feel like I've got a lot out of it. Now it's time to get back into things and contribute some of those learnings and experiences to life at the Brumbies."
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika would be pleased with the decision to deal with the cartilage damage sooner rather than later. With a three-Test series against Ireland on the horizon and another crack at the Bledisloe Cup just around the corner, the 65-Test flanker will be a key member of the Australian Test squad.
Despite the physical set back, the break has given Pocock a mental freshen up after more than a decade in professional rugby. He and partner Emma poured considerable energy and finances into a farming project in Pocock's native Zimbabwe, and ran into a number of challenges trying to turn it into an operation to support community development and conservation projects.
"It has given me some perspective on rugby, in some ways it makes you see it for what it is, which is a game to be enjoyed," he said. "On the other hand, I went back to the primary school I went to in Gweru and ran coaching clinics for under-8s to under-18s. Just to see how excited they were that one of their students that went to the exact same school and played on the exact same ground, was now playing rugby for Australia. That reinforced how fortunate we are to do what we do and how rugby can bring joy to so many people's lives."