The Rise Of Joe Cokanasiga
It’s been quite the month for the young man fondly known as ‘Fiji Joe’, culminating in his international debut at Twickenham against Japan. We take a look at his rise, and what he offers the England setup.
It’s been quite the month for the young man fondly known as ‘Fiji Joe’, the hum and swell of his introductory Twickenham crowd would have been as palpable as the sound itself, with the horde of supporters rising with anticipation at the mere hint of the ball passing his way; and all of this on his debut. The marauding winger even managed to bag a try to sweeten the deal, marking his maiden taste of international rugby as a potential precursor to a fruitful England career.
Included in Eddie Jones’ 2017 Argentina touring squad at the tender age of 18, the London Irish Academy product found himself within touching distance of becoming the youngest winger in English rugby history, with Wilfrid Lowry maintaining his 98-year record by the grace of Cokanasiga’s pre-tour injury. Lowry’s Twickenham debut against the French aged 19 years and 201 days is still the time to beat for fledgling flyers.
After lighting up social media with an outrageous 80-metre try against London Scottish in the Greene King IPA Championship, the Fijian-born, 6ft 4” 114kg winger struggled to flog his wares in the Premiership the following season. The Exiles’ subsequent re-relegation preceded a summer move for the jumbo-sized wing, journeying up the well-trodden path between the Madjeski Stadium and the Recreation Ground.
In the blue of Bath, Cokanasiga became an immediate Premiership hit after flattering to deceive in green. A brace in just his third appearance for Bath saw the West Country outfit squeeze past Harlequins away from home. After making waves in his first two appearances against Bath’s bitter rivals Bristol and Gloucester, the use of the term ‘fan favourite’ would see Cokanasiga aptly titled.
‘Fiji Joe’ has since gone on to amass 346 metres with ball-in-hand, make eight clean breaks, beat 14 defenders and execute seven successful offloads in just five Premiership games in the Blue, Black and White. Whilst forming an all-Fijian, all-England international finishing pairing with clubmate Semesa Rokoduguni and joining the ranks of fellow Irish Academy products and British and Irish Lions tourists Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph, Cokanasiga is keeping fine company throughout the year.
Although, for all his tackle busts, offloads or perplexing sidesteps, it was his aerial prowess in an England jersey that will have appeased Eddie Jones the most. When many opposing coaches deliberate over the threats of the current England team, one of the most consistent topics surrounds the national side’s kicking game. The boot of Ben Youngs has been crucial to most of England’s success under the Jones regime.
It was, however, the hoisted ball of reserve scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth that offered Cokanasiga the chance to prove himself part of the furniture on Saturday, with the big man leaping highest to tip Wigglesworth’s box-kick back into the hands of Jamie George. After Wigglesworth throttled up his ageing, yet well-oiled, thrusters to storm down the left wing, Cokanasiga popped up in support for the final try-scoring pass, dragging two Japanese defenders over the line to claim what will hopefully be the first of many in an illustrious career.
Time and time again Jones has quoted the fact that England’s backline is one of the smallest at the top level of Test rugby. As far back as the tour to Argentina in 2017, in which Cokanasiga nearly made his debut, Jones noted how the inclusions of the Northampton Saints utility back Harry Mallinder and Cokanasiga himself could go some way to adding some heft to his backline.
Following his weekend’s deft ariel showing, subsequent work rate to claim the ensuing score and a penchant for bumping would-be tacklers, the 21-year-old’s rise may have only just begun.