Speed and flair mark out Joe Cokanasiga for England World Cup future

As Joe Cokanasiga was busy tearing Italy asunder on his first Six Nations start debate was raging among TV pundits as to precisely what Eddie Jones has on his hands. Sir Clive Woodward believes comparisons with Jonah Lomu are warranted but Lawrence Dallaglio urges caution. The question was whether, at 21 and with such inexperience, he could be trusted to start a World Cup quarter-final and the pair had differing views.

The question can be put another way. Do you focus on what Cokanasiga can do? Namely his aerial ability, his pace, power, athleticism and offloading skills – all to the fore in his man-of-the-match performance on Saturday – or what he cannot do so well, specifically his defensive positioning which left a little to be desired?

What can be said without question is that compared with how he was when Jones plucked him from obscurity to go on the 2017 summer tour of Argentina the Bath wing is unrecognisable and it now looks certain he will be part of England’s World Cup squad. He went to Argentina with a hamstring problem, barely took part in training but Jones knew precisely what he was doing with the Fijian-born wing.

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“He had a choice at the end of the tour; he realised what he had to do to be a top-line player,” said Jones. “He could have just settled to be a journeyman club man [but] he took the first option, he’s worked bloody hard to get fit and now we are seeing his talent come through. I took him to Argentina because I thought he could play in the World Cup. It looks like he might be a possibility of doing that.”

Cokanasiga agrees that tour was an eye-opening experience. He now has four caps but more importantly an understanding of what Jones expects. “Coming from the under-20s where things are not as intense I didn’t know what the demands were to play international rugby. I was a bit too immature and complacent with that.”

Less than two years later it took Cokanasiga all of 62 seconds to make his mark on the Six Nations at Twickenham. Soaring through the air he gathered Owen Farrell’s crossfield kick before flicking an outrageous one-handed offload to Tom Curry. Thereafter Cokanasiga proceeded to wreak havoc down England’s right wing, often carrying the ball in one hand, always looking to offload. “Eddie just says: ‘Do what you do and get your hands on the ball as soon as you can,’” he said. “I am not there to do it for entertainment. It just comes naturally and, if I have a time to do it, I’ll do it. As long as I am enjoying the way I play I am happy.”

Jones for his part, took a diplomatic view of Cokanasiga’s one-handed style – “as long as he does it well we don’t see any sort of issue with it” – but he bristled at comparisons with Lomu. “That’s ridiculous,” he added. “That tells you when you have the television on you should have the commentary down. Lomu almost won a World Cup for New Zealand, changed the way the game’s played. So let’s get serious about it. We are not engaging in that sort of rubbish conversation.”

Jones, in fact, sees comparisons elsewhere and believes Cokanasiga has similar aerial attributes to Israel Folau, whose Aussie Rules background helps set him apart. Certainly there were similarities in the way Cokanasiga fielded Farrell’s kick above his head and his teammate Ben Te’o, who lived with Folau when both were playing rugby league in Australia, believes it is no coincidence. “Physically he has the size and the jumping ability, it is just about the technique,” said Te’o. “Izzy honed his skills over a few years down in Melbourne working with AFL guys and he played AFL. We are lucky to have a few AFL connections. We have Neil Craig on the coaching staff who does a lot of work with him. That is a part of Joe’s game that he can keep working on and be great at.”


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