Column: Bath’s unlikely double act no longer waiting in the wings

Four years ago, the closest Joe Cokanasiga got to the World Cup was as a Fijian war dancer at the opening ceremony.

Four years ago, the closest Joe Cokanasiga got to the World Cup was as a Fijian war dancer at the opening ceremony.

Ruaridh McConnochie can remember watching that first night on TV in his student digs in Kingston, not yet even a contracted professional and without the delusion to even dream of such a stage.

On Tuesday, they were both named to start on the wing for England’s clash Pool C clash with the USA in Kobe.

It is quite a rise for the Bath boys – and one that for a long time did not appear very likely.

“In 2015 I was living in a flat,” remembers McConnochie.

“I hadn’t even made a debut on the world sevens series at that point. I was just trying to get another sevens contract and it has been a few crazy years which I have really enjoyed.

“If someone had said I would be here at the World Cup four years later, I wouldn’t have believed it. At that time, it wasn’t even a thought that I was good enough and would want to be back in XVs. It is a dream come true.”

Cokanasiga was only 17 at the time of the opening ceremony, and the thought of one day playing at a World Cup hadn’t yet entered his head either.

“I remember watching that final – thinking, ‘this is unbelievable’ – and imagining getting the chance to play in one of these games,” he said.

“It feels weird (that I am) playing on Thursday. I didn’t think it would be possible and I feel grateful. Every day is a dream.”

Indeed, you don’t even have to look back as far as 2015 to find a time when these two were still the longest of shots to be here in Japan.

Only a year ago, McConnochie had not pulled on the Blue, Black and White of Bath, let alone the Red Rose, after switching from sevens to XVs.

Cokanasiga might be the younger of the two, but his shot at the big time came sooner.

Called up by Eddie Jones for the trip to Argentina back in 2017, then soon bounced out again.

Uncapped and unsure of his own abilities, Jones then publically aired concerns about Cokanasiga’s fitness and attitude and it looked like his time would not come for RWC 2019.

But a move from London Irish to Bath has paid dividends.

“I have definitely matured,” says the 21-year-old.

“At that time I didn’t know what I had to do to be an international player.

“I gave myself a kick, I realised you have got to work hard for this stuff. I feel I have definitely developed into that type of player now.”

England were not short of back three options. The names just roll off the tongue. Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly, Jonny May, Jack Nowell, Mike Brown, Chris Ashton, Denny Solomona. It keeps going, Marland Yarde, Christian Wade. These guys were surely ahead in the pecking order.

But Cokanasiga got his chance last autumn, and two tries in two Tests caught the eye.

His real coming out party though was the jaw-dropping Six Nations debut against Italy in March.

The Twickenham crowd could not quite believe what they were seeing, the blend of power and pace had pundits, both armchair and expert, comparing the youngster to Jonah Lomu and Israel Folau.

And he has not looked back ever since.

McConnochie might not be blessed with that same physicality. But he makes up for it with his quick feet and even quicker brain.

The Olympic silver medallist has a natural feel for the game as an elusive runner with enough versatility to pique Jones’ interest.

And the West Country teammates are clearly big fans of one another as well. Cokanasiga calls McConnochie ‘impossible to stop’.

McConnochie meanwhile, is happy to pay tribute to the gentle giant who has shown him the way.

“I got to know Joe at the back end of August and to go through his journey with him getting his England debut in the autumn and learning off him,” said McConnochie.

“In his own way, he is a world-class winger and it is great to go through that journey learning from one of the best wingers out there.

“The obvious difference between us is size and he is a beast. He is 118kg and one of the quickest in the squad. He is a thoroughbred winger. I like to think of myself being able to play the back three positions. We complement each other well.”

McConnochie’s debut did not come until this August, and it was a delayed one at that.

The winger twice pulled up lame on the eve of his Test bow before finally getting his chance at St James’ Park against Italy.

That was barely a Test match in all honesty, more two sides going through the motions with their minds in Japan if not yet their bodies.

Thursday in the Kobe Misaki Stadium will be something different altogether. The white-hot pressure of a World Cup pool game against an improving USA who are sniffing an upset.

But there will be familiar faces wherever McConnochie looks. Not just his clubmate on the other wing. But also his father and step-mother who will be in the crowd, and even his opposite man Martin Iosefo, a fellow sevens convert.

“You couldn’t make it up. I have known Martin for the last three years and we were both travelling reserves at the Olympics and both ended up playing,” added McConnochie.

“It is quite a cool story that we now end up playing against each other at the World Cup.

“My dad and step-mum are coming out, arriving tomorrow, and they always say they planned this because they knew it would be my first match having not been there for my debut (in Newcastle against Italy). It is good timing.”

As for Cokanasiga, his mum is en route and will arrive in Kobe on Wednesday, before his sister and girlfriend join them next week.

“I am really excited, and it has been such a long build up and I cannot wait,” added the winger, whose shyness belies his hulking frame.

“Everyone has their skills that make them shine and it is a case of making sure everything gels together and for me to get involved as much as I can.

“I have matured over the last two years and I gave myself a kick and told myself what I had to do to develop into that type of player.”

These two Bath boys have surprised even themselves in making it to the big dance. Now they just need to move their feet.