Joe Rokocoko: 'Some get up for the <i>haka</i> and some don't. I really get up for it'

Brian Viner interviews the All Black boy wonder, who turned his side's last Cardiff encounter into a pulsating victory, and returns tomorrow on a mission to prove that being dropped against the Lions is all in the past
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Both the Cardiff crowd and Rokocoko, now an old-timer of 22, will have a better idea of what to expect tomorrow. "It's the loudest crowd I've ever known," he says. "When the stadium roof is closed, it's awesome. At most games you come out on the pitch for the warm-up, and the stadium's not full, but when you get out there again a few minutes later, the whole scene has changed.

"There's not one seat empty, and it gives you goosebumps. It's exciting. You know everyone's eyes are on you, and you can imagine how it was in the days of the gladiators, going out to fight.

"That's the same at most international games, but here in Cardiff last year it was amazing. I couldn't hear team-mates two metres away, and the noise goes on all the way through, more like a soccer match. Usually in rugby the crowd waits until there's a break or someone scores, and then the whole stadium lifts, but here the noise is non-stop, whether Wales are winning or losing. It's definitely one of my top two, along with Pretoria stadium in South Africa. I like it in Wales. The passion for rugby reminds me of home."

The strong conviction of Rokocoko's words is conveyed better in print than in person, oddly enough. At 6ft 3in and 15st 7lb he could make himself the centre of attention in Grand Central Station at rush-hour, yet he is a quietly spoken, mild-mannered sort of chap, and sitting with him in a corner of a function room at the Cardiff Hilton, with Tana Umaga giving a television interview nearby, I am worried that even my tape-recorder - though carefully positioned almost under Rokocoko's as yet unbroken nose - will express more interest in what Umaga has to say.

On the subject of his dreadlocked skipper, I ask Rokocoko whether the infamous spear tackle on Brian O'Driscoll which so enraged the British and Irish Lions this summer, ever crops up in conversation in the All Black camp.

"We haven't talked about it at all," he insists, quietly. "The press keeps bringing up the spear tackle, but it's happened, it's behind us. We haven't talked about the Lions experience, and we haven't talked about the three [Tri- Nations] wins we've had. We're sending a clear message that everything is behind us, that we are only looking forward."

This strategy suits Rokocoko more than most, because he played no part in the All Blacks v Lions campaign. He was deemed to have suffered a loss of form, and that was that, a useful reminder that even a young man proclaimed by some to be the next Jonah Lomu, a man whose try-scoring record is already better than Lomu's, a man who is the first All Black to score two or more tries in four successive Tests, is vulnerable to the ruthless New Zealand selection policy.

"I wasn't showing [form] in the Super-12s and it wasn't only me, the team [Auckland] just didn't go right. I had a struggle all season for a mixture of reasons, and it was hard, seeing all those supporters wearing Lions jerseys, getting excited. But the Lions supporters encouraged me when they saw me, which was great. And it [being dropped] helped me realise there is more to life than rugby, that family and friends are more important. I was never going to drown myself, but... I knew I wasn't doing anything wrong, that I just had to be myself.

"When I started playing, no-one knew me. I could just be myself, there was no weight on my shoulders. Now there's this word expectation that I hear all the time. At the beginning, your father's there to hold your hand. By the second year, even he has expectations. But sometimes you can make these things work for you. Other teams used to have one eye on me, now they have two eyes. I don't get as much space as I used to. But that can make more space for Rico [Gear] on the other wing. It can be good for us as a team."

Besides, it's not as though only Rokocoko is burdened with expectation. This New Zealand team begins its tour of the British Isles with not a few experts predicting a Grand Slam over all four home countries, an achievement surprisingly recorded only once before, in 1978. But within the past 12 months the All Blacks have humbled the Lions, steamrollered the French in Paris, and beaten South Africa and Australia. The Webb Ellis Cup is already glittering in the distance, and Rokocoko, with engaging candour, does not deny that the 2007 World Cup is very much in the team's sights.

"I can't lie about it," he says. "It's in everyone's minds. But we've got to lay down strong foundations. That's why these kinds of tours really help in building a good team culture, in getting used to being overseas, to playing in different stadiums, to adapting to the experience. For me, the hardest thing is the sleeping habits, waking up in the middle of the night, being asleep when you should be awake, awake when you should be asleep. It's good to get used to all that."

If the All Blacks do capture the World Cup in 2007, it will be precisely 20 years since they did it last, a frankly mystifying record of under-achievement and one which the world's most single-minded rugby nation can scarcely bring itself to contemplate. What is Rokocoko's theory for this lack of success? After all, he was barely more than a toddler and still living in his native Fiji on the only occasion that a New Zealand captain, David Kirk, has lifted the World Cup, so cannot remember a time when the All Blacks have been able to call themselves world champions.

"I don't know why," he says. "Maybe we'd win that tournament every time if they didn't put the title 'World Cup' before it. There have been times when we have won 11 or 12 games throughout the year, and only lost one, which would be a superb year except that the one game we lose puts us out of the World Cup." Encouragingly, the final in 2007 will be played in the Stade de France, scene of last year's 45-6 mauling, which was unusual, for so decisive a victory, in that Rokocoko did not get his name (pronounced Roko-tho-ko, incidentally) on the score-sheet.

He was as motivated as anyone, however, having watched with fury a DVD of the French players performing a sacrilegious, mickey-taking version of the haka in the Twickenham dressing-room after the 1999 World Cup semi-final triumph that left New Zealand rugby in a state of anxious introspection from which it is only just emerging. "It lifted us, raised our spirits,'' Rokocoko later recalled. "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. 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 a further inspiration that day just under a year ago, the winning team was to be presented with the Dave Gallaher Trophy, named after the revered captain of the "Originals", the 1905 All Blacks who won 34 of their 35 matches on their tour of the British Isles, totalling 976 points to 59.

Twelve years later, Gallaher died at Passchendaele, and Rokocoko, an attentive listener to the historian who was wheeled in to tell the team about the carnage of the First World War, was no less determined than his New Zealand born-and-bred teammates to take the trophy home.

Indeed, it is doubtless largely because Rokocoko is a naturalised New Zealander that he so values the heritage of the All Blacks; the zeal of the converted and all that. His parents moved from Fiji in search of work when he was five, and for his first few years there he knew nothing of the All Blacks. "I remember watching the Hong Kong Sevens," he tells me. "My team then was Fiji, and I am still very proud of my background, but Fiji has made it easy for me. I am very close to Mr Qarase [the Prime Minister], who says that we [himself and other Fijian-born players representing other countries] have the country's full support as long as we remember that we are still ambassadors for Fiji."

By the time Rokocoko had reached his mid-teens, when it had become clear that he was unusually swift for such a big guy, he had become as obsessed with the All Blacks as all his contemporaries. "When I got into the Under-16s New Zealand team I starting learning all about it. That was when I started dreaming about playing for the All Blacks, and suddenly it was reality."

He made his debut against England barely a week after his 20th birthday, becoming the youngest All Black since Lomu almost 10 years earlier, and has hardly looked back since, least of all at his time out of favour. Nor will there will be any looking back shortly before tomorrow's match kicks off; facing the Welsh players with a pop-eyed, contorted face as fierce as anyone's, Rokocoko will put his heart and soul into the haka.

"Some get up for it, and some don't," he tells me. "I really get up for it.

"It is a new haka, which we did for the first time against the Springboks in the Tri-Nations. We've talked to people who know all about Maori culture.

"They did this haka for us, and we did it back to them. It's for the players we have now, with different movements and different wording. I'm not saying that we will forget the Ka Mate, the original haka, but this one has more meaning for the players on this team. We feel like we're creating a new legacy. It helps us to express ourselves." How Rokocoko expresses himself in the 80 minutes of play will be of more worry to the Welsh.

Lords of the tries

TRIES TO TESTS RATIO: 27 Tests, 30 tries


New Zealand: Christian Cullen 58 Tests, 46 tries

England: Rory Underwood 85 Tests, 49 tries

Australia: David Campese 101 Tests, 64 tries

France: Serge Blanco 93 Tests, 38 tries