No ordinary Joe – a closer look at Cokanasiga’s immediate impact

Joe Cokanasiga 9/3/2019
Joe Cokanasiga’s first-ever Guinness Six Nations start could really not have gone any better.

Joe Cokanasiga’s first-ever Guinness Six Nations start could really not have gone any better.

The powerhouse winger showcased every aspect of his unique skillset in a performance that will still be giving Italian defenders nightmares.

It has led to an overwhelming outpouring of praise for the 21-year-old.

Sir Clive Woodward compared him to Jonah Lomu, Ben Te’o to Israel Folau and ITV co-commentator Ben Kay was left with little choice than to name him Guinness Man of the Match.

But for all the adulation, it is worth noting that Cokanasiga hasn’t come from total obscurity to have this immediate impact.

His exceptional abilities have been known about for a long time – take a look at his try in the Championship for London Irish against London Scottish all the way back in 2016 if you want proof.

He went on an England tour to Argentina a full two years ago and came into Saturday’s Italy clash with three caps and two Test tries to his name already.

But what really caught the eye this weekend, was how England are now beginning to adapt their gameplan in order to integrate their Fijian-born flyer.

Within the first five minutes on Saturday, the youngster had re-claimed a kick-off, caught and produced a stunning no-look offload from a cross-kick, produced a barrelling one-handed break down the right wing and won a breakdown penalty with a textbook kick-chase.

Starts don’t come much faster than that.

But still there was more to come, he packed down at No.8 in a scrum, celebrated like a mad man and, to all intents and purposes, truly announced himself as an international winger.

He made something happen every time he was in the game.

To put it bluntly: England have always had a firework on their hands, only now are they learning which end to light.

And that was evident from the first very minute against the Azzurri.

One-handed carries and skittling defenders garner the column inches, but what might end up being Cokanasiga’s true X-factor is his ability in the air.

With the Bath star on the pitch, England have a man who has the genetic gifts to jump higher and hang for longer than his opponents and reclaim balls he has no right to.

And right from the kick-off, England show they are not going to waste it.

Their go-to play at re-starts this Championship, in keeping with their overall kicking tactic, has been for Owen Farrell to stick the ball deep into the right corner and pin their opponents in.

Here, the skipper shows as if he is going to keep to this plan, before dummying back to Italy’s left and firing a flatter kick just over the ten-metre line. Cokanasiga does the rest and England re-claim possession.

The English pack then look to punch holes, Joe Launchbury and Ellis Genge in particular carrying hard from the outset, but after seven phases Farrell puts boot to ball again.

Cokanasiga’s confidence is already flowing, he is demanding the ball and both Farrell and Tom Curry inside him pay full attention.

Once again, there is only one place the fly-half is looking to stick the ball, and that is on Angelo Esposito’s head.

The Azzurri left winger can do little if Farrell gets the kick right and Cokanasiga times his leap – as happens here.

That Curry can’t hold onto the no-look offload is a real shame. Not least because it would have surely been the try of the Championship in a Guinness Six Nations that has featured plenty of stunners.

But it is instructive because clearly England are still learning to adapt to their winger’s unique capabilities.

Curry has made the inside break because he has seen his winger pick balls out the sky at Pennyhill Park for weeks, and you can bet he will be expecting the unexpected no-look offload next time around.

One can hardly blame Curry for fluffing his lines – it was the sort of offload that bears re-watching.

80,000 jaws are on the floor at Twickenham and unfortunately for Curry, so is the ball.

After the game Jones was quick to point out that there is plenty for Cokanasiga still to work on if he is to become the complete package.

Defensively, both of Italy’s tries came in his corner – although he is left somewhat exposed both times by his defenders inside him.

But if he wants to become a regular fixture in England’s back-three, then he will not be allowed to ignore his fundamentals.

And one of those is undoubtedly the kick chase, an area that England have made real strides in this year.

Still the game is only two-and-a-half minutes old, and again Cokanasiga is front and centre.

This time it is Billy Vunipola of all people putting the kick through, and Cokanasiga is off and running.

The right winger eats up the Twickenham turf to bear down on Esposito, collars his man and then fights back to his feet to perform a vital counter-ruck.

Eventually Italy go off their feet and the turnover is won. Just watch the celebration at the end of it all from not-so-gentle Joe.

If anything is going to make him even more of a fans’ favourite at Rugby HQ, it is surely this.

Cokanasiga has pulled out almost every trick in the book and still there are not yet five minutes on the clock.

But now is the first chance we really get to see him fly with ball in hand. Proof if you still need it that he is about far more than just ball-carrying.

Here full-back Elliot Daly, who came into the line with real verve on Sunday as the hulking presence of Manu Tuilagi and Te’o kept midfield defenders occupied, is the man to release the winger.

His long pass off his left hits the winger in stride, and soon he has left a trail of destruction behind him.

Once again, this move somehow doesn’t end in a try as Ben Youngs’ pass is behind May and when the ball is finally spread left Brad Shields’ pass strays forward – probably the flanker’s only mistake on a similarly impressive individual outing.

But the one-handed carry merits closer inspection.

Of course the cameramen love it, it looks great on the slow mo, and Eddie Jones said afterwards he thinks Cokanasiga is prone to overdo it.

But what it does do is freeze defenders with incredible ease. Rather than fire a full double pump with two hands, Cokanasiga can make defenders look stupid simply by cocking his wrist or circling his hand.

Like a good leg-spinner in cricket, it makes it almost impossible to predict and Jayden Hayward, the Italy full-back, has to turn his back and cover the potential offload to Tuilagi down the right as Cokanasiga keeps on coming.

Five minutes in and England are already firmly on top. But they show admirable restraint thereafter in not just firing the ball out to Cokanasiga at every opportunity.

They have too many attacking weapons in their arsenal to rely on any one individual, the rolling maul yields the first score and Manu Tuilagi is off to the races soon after as England start to stretch their legs.

But still Cokanasiga shows up in areas you would least expect, proving how in tune he has become with England’s patterns of play.

First he carries back from a kick-off after clever work from Vunipola to release him and in the blink of an eye, England are already back up to halfway.

See too how Joe Launchbury is expecting the offload this time, Cokanasiga seldom dies with the ball and England pinch a few more yards and have turned defence into attack without having to put boot to ball.

Just before half-time, however, is when we get the next best example of how England are beginning to understand the matchless merits of their new winger.

It was Jack Nowell who Jones called an extra flanker in the build-up to the Championship but Cokanasiga can now claim to be a bona-fide international No.8.

There is no way that Chris Ashton or Nowell, the previous right wingers for England this Championship, would have been used this way by Jones. And the less said about Jonny May’s travails in the scrum the better…

But here England have a plan in place that caters precisely to the skills, and the threat, that Cokanasiga can bring.

The moment the scrum is awarded, England have their plan in place and Cokanasiga is ready for his new role.

And it is no token gesture either, take a look at how he removes the dirt from his studs before the scrum. The youngster intends to pack down and push with the rest of the pack and wants maximum grip to do so.

The plan is obviously to send Cokanasiga up the blindside from the base if the opportunity arises but the Azzurri don’t bite.

So instead Youngs opts to hit his normal No.8 Billy Vunipola, who has been waiting in midfield, to carry hard into an Azzurri backline who simply do not have the same bulk lying in wait.

All their forward pack are in the scrum, so the Saracens back-rower has a free shot down Italy’s ten channel – just look how far over the gainline the next ruck is formed.

All of which comes about because of Cokanasiga’s singular skillset and England’s ability to make the most of it.

If Cokanasiga’s efforts in the first half went unrewarded by his teammates, in the second 40 England are not so wasteful.

First Cokanasiga goes charging through the middle – on the sort of trail line that has become Ashton’s calling card.

Farrell’s pass is perfectly disguised and Cokanasiga is at full pelt when he hits the line, the Azzurri can’t cope.

Braam Steyn is a fine tackler and has proved that this Championship already, but he cannot get back to Cokanasiga in time, Tommaso Allan also slips off him and the try line is beckoning.

Clever thinking and self-discipline here means Cokanasiga for once does go to ground with the ball and when it is recycled, Tuilagi has acres to wander over in the right corner.

And then just after the hour mark, England have emptied their bench but still Cokanasiga shows an appetite for work.

Again it is Daly who creates the overlap to put Cokanasiga in the clear, but still the chance needs to be finished.

This time Cokanasiga opts to keep his box of tricks firmly closed.

This is a simple draw the man and pass operation that puts Dan Robson over. Still, Cokanasiga executes it perfectly.

Not bad for a kid who – according to Jones – struggled to make it through a training session in Argentina two summers ago.

Undoubtedly there are going to be tougher Tests to come for Cokanasiga.

When your team have run up a bonus point before half-time, it is probably easier to look like a world beater than in adversity in Cardiff.

But from the off on Saturday, he looked like he understood his role and England understood how to get the best out of him.

And if he continues on this curve, Scotland will need to beware this weekend – or else this celebration could become a familiar theme…