Joe Rokocoko: Flying machine who loves to give the world the runaround

Fijian by birth but thoroughbred All Black by trade, record-breaking winger is happy to follow in Lomu's footsteps
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The Independent Online

He has been compared, inevitably, to another phenomenal Pacific Islander, Jonah Lomu, which is a compliment and a half. "I can never be described as the next Lomu," Joe Rokocoko said. "Nobody can. No two players are the same."

He has been compared, inevitably, to another phenomenal Pacific Islander, Jonah Lomu, which is a compliment and a half. "I can never be described as the next Lomu," Joe Rokocoko said. "Nobody can. No two players are the same."

In impact and the rapid accumulation of tries, Rokocoko, the youngest All Black since Lomu made his debut at 19 almost a decade ago, is making a big name for himself. But he is right: there is only one Jonah Lomu, even though both players have created havoc down the left wing.

Rokocoko can, however, follow Lomu's example. "He is a very special person," he said. "He always gave it his all, even when he knew he wasn't fit, and he never played for himself. It was always the team, and that is something I'm very conscious of."

Lomu was England's nemesis, and they hated the sight of him. In the 1995 World Cup in South Africa he destroyed them with four tries in the semi-final, prompting Will Carling, the England captain, to describe him as a freak. Four years later, Lomu did for them again at Twickenham and it was the beginning of the end of England's World Cup. Since then, of course, he has had a kidney transplant, although his aim is to return to the game. "Jonah is doing very well," Rokocoko said. "The first thing he did after his transplant was to order a pair of running shoes."

Nobody has described Rokocoko, at 6ft 3in a couple of inches shorter than Lomu and a couple of stone lighter, as a freak, although his record is extraordinary. A couple of years ago he was scoring tries for New Zealand Under-19s against England at Twickenham; in his first five senior Tests he scored 10 times. Last June, in his home city of Auckland, he scored three tries against England, his third Test hat-trick, and by the time he embarked on the latest short tour he was seventh in New Zealand's all-time try list with 25 from only 20 appearances. Lomu's strike rate was 35 from 60 Tests.

"To tell you the truth I don't think about it that much," Rokocoko said. Laid-back? You could say. In Surrey in December he is draped over a leather sofa at the five-star Pennyhill Park Hotel near Bagshot, looking like he is ready for a stroll on the beach in his native Fiji. He is wearing All Black-issue flip-flops, which are counterbalanced a couple of metres away by a woollen beanie on his head.

As a first-class base with its own rugby pitch, Pennyhill was colonised by the All Blacks for the 1999 World Cup (France ran rings around them in the semi-final at Twickenham) and then commandeered by Sir Clive Woodward. England have been using it as a luxury country retreat ever since. "I thought I recognised the place," Rokocoko said. "I've seen it on television. No wonder England did so well in the World Cup."

As England moved out after their defeat by Australia last week the All Blacks moved in, to prepare for yesterday's match against the Barbarians which, ironically, because of professionalism has become an amateurish sideshow. Rokocoko toed the party line for all of 10 seconds. New Zealand, he said, looked on it as a Test match, and the Baa-Baas had some great players. Are you playing in it, Joe? "Eh, no," he replied, flashing a giveaway smile.

The serious stuff of the New Zealand tour had been completed with an overwhelming victory over Italy in Rome, a one-point win over Wales in Cardiff and, the most satisfying of all, a demolition job on France in Paris. At the Stade de France eight days ago, where the World Cup final will be staged in 2007, the All Blacks laid down a marker.

It was all very deliberate and ruthless, and the French never knew what hit them. Several factors contributed to a New Zealand performance that had their coach, Graham Henry, usually ultra-conservative, positively gushing. "They expressed themselves brilliantly against a better side than the England we played earlier this year," he said.

No wonder. The All Blacks had got hold of a DVD which showed French players performing a version of the haka in the Twickenham dressing room after their devastating 1999 World Cup semi-final triumph left New Zealand rugby under a long black cloud. "France did the haka their way," Rokocoko said, leaving no doubt whatsoever that they were taking the mickey. "They must have thought they were out of camera shot."

In the eyes of the All Blacks this was nothing less than sacrilege. "It lifted us, raised our spirits," Rokocoko said. "Every game has meaning, but this became special. The All Black jersey had lost respect. Our goal was to win that respect back. I think we went some way in Paris to doing that. It was one of the best experiences I have ever had. I knew we were capable but I still didn't imagine we would put 40 points on them in their own back yard. I'll never forget the look in their eyes."

As if the French haka wasn't incentive enough, New Zealand had the Dave Gallaher Trophy to play for, named after the captain of the 1905 All Blacks, who died at Passchendaele during the First World War in 1917. "We were going to take that trophy back to New Zealand," Rokocoko said. "We didn't know much about it but we were given a history lesson."

In an ideal world Rokocoko would be playing for Fiji, his home country. He was born in Nadi in 1983 and his father, an electrician, moved the family to Auckland five years later. The best of the Fijians, Samoans and Tongans are gracing sides all over the world.

Rokocoko - in training he can cover 40 metres in 4.66 seconds - was fast-tracked by the All Blacks and had played in 20 Tests before even making his debut for his provincial side, Auckland. "I have spoken to other Fijians about this and what we hear is that after one year, maybe two, we will be lost, we will just disappear from the game. I am trying to prove people wrong. This is always at the back of my mind. Earlier in the year I was on the bench in the National Provincial Championship. I was just not performing and I was not fit enough. I had to sort things out. It's performance that counts and I've got to be consistent."

Rokocoko is now on leave until the beginning of February, contemplating a year ahead which will take in Super 12, the Tri-Nations, the visit of the Lions and another tour of Europe. But before all that, a holiday in Fiji.

In the World Cup last year Fiji had the wing of the tournament in Rupeni Caucaunibuca; they could have had Rokocoko on the other wing. "What you must understand is the amount of support I get in Fiji for doing what I'm doing," Rokocoko said. "They are proud of what Fijians achieve, wherever it is. The most important thing for me is to remember where I come from. They won't respect you if you forget your roots."

Tana Umaga has just been named Samoa's sportsman of the year, recognised for being the first New Zealander of Samoan heritage to captain the All Blacks. He took over the captaincy from Reuben Thorne following the latest New Zealand World Cup débâcle, when they were outplayed by Australia in the semi-final 12 months ago.

"Our preparation had been excellent and yet in one game our whole year crashed," Rokocoko said. "The first thing I thought about was that we had let our families down, let the nation down. It teaches you that any opportunity you get you have to take. You never know when you're going to get another one. I don't want to finish any game with regrets. I don't want to waste a second."

Rokocoko's first Test try came against Wales in Hamilton two years ago, and every time he plays them he gets a brace. In Cardiff a couple of weeks ago he got another two, one of them a gem when, with sleight of hand, he conned Gareth Thomas into expecting a kick ahead only to scorch past him, ending in a trademark Rokocoko dive over the line, a broad smile on display for the cameras. The difference between Rokocoko and Lomu is that the latter would have run through Thomas, not around him. Lomu was deceptively fast, and obviously powerful, a huge man who could break through three or more tacklers whether they were forwards or backs.

Both wings made sensational appearances on the international stage in the seven-a-side game. When Rokocoko was introduced to the International Rugby Board sevens circuit two years ago he scored 27 tries in six tournaments, giving him plenty of opportunity to perfect the swallow dive, left arm outstretched, ball tucked underneath the right and not forgetting the South Sea smile. Opponents do not like it. It smacks of triumphalism, but Rokocoko knows his place in the scheme of things.

"I am still young and I am still learning. Because I score tries I get flocked by people. We can play games and have fun in the back line, but we cannot do it if the forwards don't win the ball. Everybody has to have an input and know their role. Mine is to finish things off."

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