The ‘blessing in disguise’ driving Joe Cokanasiga towards England return


It will be seven years next summer since Joe Cokanasiga was first called up to an England squad, a gifted teenager picked on the promise of potential with a seductive, simple skill set. “He is big and he is fast,” was Eddie Jones’s remark after selecting the wing for the first time, the then-England coach purring with the possibilities presented by a 19-year-old who seemed to have the world at his sizeable feet.

For various reasons, Cokanasiga has not yet quite materialised into a complete international impact-maker. There have been fleeting glimpses of what he might offer in English white – most prominently in the 57-15 warm-up thrashing of Ireland ahead of the 2019 World Cup – but consistency has been an issue, a perception that the youngster has been a luxury figure with others always seeming to offer more. Two major knee injuries haven’t helped matters, either.

And so Cokanasiga has tallied just 14 caps in five years. The fact that he has remained there or thereabouts under both Jones and now Steve Borthwick is evidence enough that Cokanasiga offers a unique skill set that any coach would always want as an option – even if he is ultimately reasonably rarely used.

But that to-ing and fro-ing from England duty and the time in selection limbo hasn’t necessarily aided a player in need of chiselling. Even a granite-shouldered colossus can grapple with the insecurities that accompany life on the international periphery, and it is only now, Cokanasiga admits, that he has begun to figure himself out as a player in a pulsating, percussive Bath side that spent Christmas top of the Premiership tree.

“Being in and out of the England squad has been frustrating for me,” Cokanasiga explains. “I feel like I’m old now – I’m 26 but I feel like I’m old rugby-wise. It takes a couple of years to get used to everything.

“I think last season I struggled a little bit with my carries. But I figured out this is my super strength and I’ve used it a lot more this season. I feel over the last couple of games I’ve slowly built up and the consistency is there. When I do get the ball, I’m having a lot more fun.”

Cokanasiga has struggled to secure a consistent starting spot for England

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Cokanasiga has already had a taste of World Cup rugby, a bit-part role in 2019 seemingly setting the platform for him to be a key figure this time around before the stalled progress of the last cycle. The hulking winger was amongst things in England’s pre-World Cup summer scrimmages but missed the final cut for the tournament, even after Anthony Watson was forced to withdraw. The omission hit Cokanasiga hard – but is also driving him to make necessary improvements to round out his game.

“It was very hard for me,” Cokanasiga says. “I thought it was the end of the world. I struggled a little bit coming back into the club. But when you come back, you just want to play again and you realise it’s not the end of the world. I think it was a blessing in disguise for me because it allowed me to keep working on the things I need to work on.

“[Steve Borthwick] always gives you clear stuff to work on and says keep working on your super strengths. That’s something we’ve done in the off-season. We stick to it every week. Obviously, you have stuff to build on but you have to work on your strengths too because that’s what gets you in the team.”

Cokanasiga offers England a unique skill set

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That ability to maximise the strengths of their players has driven Bath’s development into table-toppers. Finn Russell’s great strength is his understanding of how to bring others into the game: Cokanasiga and the rampant Ollie Lawrence have been the most notable beneficiaries of the Scottish playmaker’s arrival at the Rec, the strike-running pair dovetailing impressively and timing their injections intelligently.

Bath coach Johann van Graan, meanwhile, has been keen to note Cokanasiga’s hard work to improve and learn to use his size as an asset under the high ball – a crucial skill for any winger hoping to force their way into Borthwick’s starting side.

“I think a big thing for me is forgetting what happened in the summer,” Cokanasiga continues. “It’s gone now and I can’t change anything about it. Like I said, I feel like it was a blessing in disguise and I can give my all to the club.

“I think I’ve just been focusing on the simple stuff and going into games with a bit more of a clear head.  When you’re having fun, it’s easy to forget about things.

Cokanasiga has impressed during Bath’s climb to the top of the table

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“Being [at Bath] last year, you could see we were all slowly building. In the off-season we did well and with a few players coming in we kept that momentum. We believe now. There is no more hoping. We haven’t really surprised ourselves. That’s a good thing and we need to keep that going.”

As England seek a new direction ahead of the Six Nations, perhaps now is the time for Cokanasiga to come into his own. While there were many positives in the World Cup campaign, a lack of potency out wide was a theme of England’s tournament, and Borthwick will recognise an opportunity. With Lawrence a likely midfield starter, especially in light of Manu Tuilagi’s injury, perhaps Bath’s power-packed partnership might soon be running amok in England white, too.

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