Joe Cokanasiga has had a big impact already at Bath even though he is only a few weeks into his first competitive season at the club. It’s not the easiest job replacing a local hero like Matt Banahan, who was a firm favourite not only with the fans at the Rec, but also with his team-mates.
In many ways it could have been a really intimidating prospect for a 20-year-old to replace a bloke like Banahan, who the crowd loved and who also gave them plenty to cheer during a time in which Bath have been very up and down.
Rugby fans love to have a favourite, someone they can put a signature chant to – like ‘Deano’ coming from the stands at Welford Road when Dean Richards was playing during my era, and likewise Gareth ‘Coochie’ Chilcott at the Rec.
At 6ft 3ins and 17st 9lbs (112kg), Cokanasiga has all the attributes to draw a big following at Bath because of his physique and presence. He’s powerful, strong and fast, and his dexterity is very impressive for someone of his size. So is his agility and awareness, as he showed recently by preventing himself from going into touch when he scored against Harlequins.
It is very early days for the Fijian-born wing, who came here as a three-year-old after his father joined the British Army, but if he continues as he has started then expectations will rise. He may be very young, but he is very difficult to stop.
When it comes to powerhouse wingers my memories go back as far as the All Black Inga Tuigamala. Known as ‘Inga the Winger’, he was not as tall or as athletic as Cokanasiga, or the legendary Jonah Lomu, but he had such power that he was incredibly effective – helping to take Newcastle to their first league title.
Inga was always one of the most animated players when New Zealand were doing the haka, and he was so explosive and dynamic when he played that it seemed as if he carried the haka into the game. He just wanted to smash and bash.
The guys that came after him, like Joel Vidiri and Gareth Thomas were bigger and faster, but it was Jonah who created a new template with his extraordinary size and speed. Others followed, with Wales fielding a pair of giant wingers in George North and Alex Cuthbert, and New Zealand still favour power wingers with brilliant try scoring technique like Julian Savea.
The great thing about big runners like Cokanasiga is that they are a big drawcard, and they also provide a huge psychological boost for their own team while sowing seeds of doubt in the opposition. The size and power they bring means they give their team-mates momentum. If Joe is running onto the ball hard then his pack know they will be running forward onto the ball, rather than having to go backwards and start again.
The sort of weaponry that Cokanasiga brings enables you to play quick, hard-hitting rugby. He also brings something extra because he is elusive, with great movement and footwork. This means that he has the option of either putting defenders off balance, or alternatively smashing them out of the away.
To get the most out of players with Cokanasiga’s attributes you want the sort of involvement which means he is capable of popping up anywhere on the pitch. This could make him very important to England, as well as Bath, because it is how England have played in the past – and it is how we should play in the present, and in future.
England are at their best when they are very direct, and Saracens and Exeter are staying true to that tradition. Cokanasiga can help to bring that back to the England attack, and he is so destructive that in my view you have to find a place for him right now.
Many would argue that he could be too much of a defensive liability at international level because of his lack of experience. They might point also to the fact that his Bath team-mate Semesa Rokoduguni – who Cokanasiga lists as one of his heroes, alongside Lomu and Savea – sometimes gets left in no man’s land, and the youngster would be an even greater risk.
However, my instinct is that the rewards will outweigh the risks, and that is why you take a gamble and introduce blokes like Cokanasiga into the international game as soon as possible.
Although he went to Argentina as part of the England squad in 2017, he did not figure in either of the Tests, so this exposure to the Bristol training camp will give him a chance to get acclimatised. I hope that influential figures like Owen Farrell can see that what Cokanasiga brings in terms of positives outweighs any minuses, so get him involved as soon as possible.
We’ve seen already in his brief time in Bath colours what he can do in terms of scoring tries, but every winger of any size always gets compared to Lomu. The reality is that Cokanasiga may not be quite as big, or as quick, but he’s close – and he’s ready to make his own story.
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