The South Seas influence in today’s England line-up is strong: Tongan-descended Billy Vunipola building his fitness at No.8 for the third week in a row, his brother Mako back on the bench three months after his hamstring injury, Samoan-born Manu Tuilagi starting at outside centre, and Joe Cokanasiga, out of Fiji via a father in the British Army, looming very large on the wing.
With Chris Ashton ruling himself out of next month’s World Cup earlier this summer, and Anthony Watson and Ruaridh McConnochie not selected for this third of England’s warm-up Tests, the 6ft 3ins, 18-stone Cokanasiga has maybe this one chance to make himself indispensable.
We already know from his six caps to date that the Cokanasiga repertoire includes one-handed carries, Jonah Lomu-esque blasts through tackles, amazingly adroit finishes, and even stints on the side of the scrum if required. If the 21-year-old is to be a major figure he must demonstrate game sense and defensive solidity – and Ireland are coming with the right kind of backline to test him, from the box-kicking nous of scrum-half Conor Murray to the weaving trickery and straight-line power of Jordan Larmour and Jacob Stockdale on the wings.
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“I feel like I have a lot more in me,” Cokanasiga said in a break from training on Wednesday. “Getting my hands of the ball more, for example, and that will come from my work-rate and how hungry I am.”
There is a nice, illustrative tale of Cokanasiga attending the opening match of England’s ultimately doomed World Cup campaign in 2015. Fiji were the opposition at Twickenham, and the then teenager assisted the Fijian High Commission (where his sister Misi works) by performing a traditional war dance at the front gates. Today he will stride through those gates in an England tracksuit, fully-fledged yet with much to prove. “I remember the vibe around the World Cup that night and thinking that I wanted to do all this one day but it didn’t feel possible,” Cokanasiga said. “I am doing it now and that feels a bit weird.”
Eddie Jones certainly believes Cokanisiga has ground to make up. The England head coach spoke this week of how Wales “picked on” the Bath youngster in Cardiff last weekend, depriving him of possession as they kept his side tryless. “He’s going through that tough period at the moment,” said Jones. “He has got to find a way to get in the game because the potential of the kid is enormous. When he has got the ball in his hands and when he gets his high-ball catching right, he is absolutely devastating.
“He is one of those kids who comes into Test rugby and, in the first couple of games, he is magic – someone has blown some dust on him and everything is good. Then teams work you out. It is like Test cricket: a team gets you out a certain way and then every time you go into bat, they’re looking to get you out the same way. That is the big difference between Test and domestic rugby. When people see a weakness, they go at you and keep going at you. Then the development of the player is, right, how do I fix this? Some work it out in a game, some take two years. The good players eventually always work it out and he is going to be a good player.”
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A week after Wales hit number one in the world rankings for the first time, Ireland will achieve the same feat, displacing the Welsh, if they win today. England, in fifth, would rise to third or fourth with a victory, depending on the margin. With Henry Slade still nursing his knee-ligament injury, and Ben Te’o jettisoned into rugby’s version of outer space, England have Owen Farrell and George Ford as inside centre and fly-half. The easy familiarity between the team-mates since under-16 level was clear as Farrell revealed Jones would toss one of them the goal-kicking tee as he sees fit.
No chance of a Paul Pogba-Marcus Rashford debate on the pitch, then? “No, it would be clear before the game,” said Farrell, a Manchester United fan. “I’ve not given it two seconds’ thought.” If the England captain and his colleagues bring the same sangfroid to this last Twickenham outing before Japan, with only Italy to face in Newcastle in the meantime, this could be a raucously celebratory farewell.
Rugby World Cup key dates
- Group stages: 20 September – 13 October
- Quarter-finals: 19-20 October
- Semi-finals: 26-27 October
- 3rd/4th play-off: 1 November
- Final: 2 November