Autumn Internationals 2014: Semesa Rokoduguni's power added to English artillery

Fijian-born winger has the pace and presence to trample some All Blacks but, writes Chris Hewett, life as a British soldier has taught him perspective

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The Independent Online

Semesa Rokoduguni is, first and foremost, a British Army tank driver, but when he plays rugby for a living, the word “driver” is of questionable relevance. The Fijian-born wing may just be the most destructive wide runner to emerge in English union in years and if he runs over a few All Blacks and tramples them into the Twickenham turf next month, he will almost certainly be lauded as “the red-rose Lomu”.

It is not a label he seeks, and if it is bestowed upon him, he might not welcome it. Rokoduguni has seen too much of the serious side of life – as a Lance Corporal in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, he has spent time fighting in Afghanistan and witnessed the full range of the conflict’s horrors – to bother with such fripperies. But the fact remains: on the evidence of his performances for Bath in the early part of this season’s Premiership campaign, he is precisely the kind of wing England did not possess when they were being obliterated by Jolly Jonah on a regular basis in the second half of the 1990s.

His promotion to the England Test squad yesterday was not quite a no-brainer. Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, had at least eight wings chasing four places, and while the most experienced of them, Chris Ashton of Saracens, had spent most of the year on a lowly rung of the pecking order, other candidates demanded careful consideration – not least Rokoduguni’s club-mate, Anthony Watson, who is still a good bet for national duty when next year’s home World Cup starts to unfold.

But “force of nature” individuals like Rokoduguni, who plays his rugby in the grandly expansive Fijian tradition, are difficult for any selector to resist and when Lancaster set about explaining his decision, he repeatedly referred to the newcomer’s potent combination of pace and physicality. “The wing positions were probably the ones we debated for longest and it’s tough on those who missed out, like Watson and David Strettle and Christian Wade,” the coach said. “But we’re excited at the prospect of working with Semesa. When you lose the kind of presence we get from Manu Tuilagi [the injured Leicester centre], it’s good to bring someone like Rokoduguni into the equation.”

Born just outside the Fijian capital Suva a little over 27 years and raised in the village of Naselai, Rokoduguni was never the South Seas rugby prodigy of popular legend. Quite the opposite. As a schoolboy, and again as an enthusiastic club player, he spent an awful lot of time “shining the pine” as a replacement. But his sporting career took off when he joined the British Army, making an immediate impact as a seven-a-side specialist. Bath offered him a two-week trial pretty much out of the blue – it was Gary Gold, then running coaching affairs at the Recreation Ground, who made the pitch after seeing him score a hatful of tries in an inter-services match – and then signed him up on something more substantial.

Rokoduguni has been heard to say that while rugby union takes a brutal toll on the body, it’s a lot more fun than being shot at in a war zone. In his first week in Afghanistan, a patrol colleague stepped on a landmine and lost both legs. “When I came back,” he told the BBC this week, “I had a different view of life: make the best of every chance you have, because that chance may come round only once.”

While he still lives in army digs in Warminster, which may not be far in geographical terms from Bath’s unusually lavish stately-home training base in the village of Farleigh Hungerford but is a million miles away in every other respect, rugby is his current overriding concern. For his family, it is different. His father still serves in the Fijian army and is due a tour of duty in Syria; he has siblings in the Black Watch regiment. As a consequence, military matters are never far from his thoughts.

“At Bath, they ask me about the army stuff all the time,” he said. “I say: ‘Boys, it’s like this. When you’re out on the rugby field and you get something wrong – miss a tackle, miss a chance to score – you can always come back and get it right next time. Out in Afghanistan, you can’t afford to make mistakes. Because a mistake might mean someone losing his life.’”

Those words go a long way towards explaining the freedom of the career soldier’s approach to his chosen sport. Neither Lancaster nor anyone else can be sure that England’s latest Pacific Islands import will fit the red-rose bill in the way that Tuilagi or the Vunipola brothers have done since breaking into Test rugby, but this much is certain: Rokoduguni will always play the game with a highly developed sense of perspective.