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Rokocoko reinvents winger's art

Joe Rokocoko is the living embodiment of the Pacific islands rugby nations' problem.

The 21-year-old, already the No 1 wing in world rugby, is Fijian born. But like thousands of others whose families joined the great island diaspora across the South Pacific, Rokocoko was lost to Fijian rugby. To pursue a life of greater opportunity, his family travelled south and settled in New Zealand. Thus, Rokocoko, like his Fijian counterpart, the Australian wing Lote Tuqiri, is a talent lost to the islanders' rugby. He will be a key member of the All Blacks side who face Australia in Sydney on Saturday, determined to extend their lead at the top of the Tri-Nations standings.

The riches that might have been available to Fiji are mouth-watering. Rokocoko and Tuqiri in one back line? Fijian-raised, they departed, like countless others. And Rokocoko makes no excuses for it.

"The All Blacks have real history and tradition and for your cousin or uncle to be in the team is huge in Fiji. They do not criticise you for playing for the All Blacks as long as you remember your roots."

When Rokocoko was first chosen for the All Blacks, huge parties were staged in Fiji near his old Nadi home. Yet he had left the island as a five-year-old. Even so, youngsters in the island still follow his career avidly, regarding him as a hero. But, taking a wider view, it will always be difficult to develop the game in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga given that scenario.

Wings used to be a threat solely on their feet. But Rokocoko has added an entirely new dimension to wing play in the modern game. When he is not racing at defences on the ground, his 6ft 2in 16st 8lb frame bristling with aggression and power, he is soaring in pursuit of the high, hanging cross-kick. With the physically imposing Rokocoko in pursuit, the ball hangs like a death sentence over most wings in the game.

His try-scoring exploits have already put him into rugby's record books. His recent hat-trick of tries against England, his third hat-trick in Test rugby, helped him become the fastest player in history to score 20 Test tries (in just 14 international matches). Before that, his flying heels had propelled him to an astonishing 27 tries in six international Sevens tournaments for New Zealand. This man's rugby shirt ought to carry an embossed health warning for opponents.

As for the All Black shirt, reverence colours Rokocoko's words. How does he define this aura, this unique tradition of wearing the black shirt of New Zealand? After all, they will have gone 20 years without winning the World Cup, by the time of the next tournament.

"To wear the All Black jersey is the ultimate. But the jersey won't do the job for you. It is what you are going to do for the jersey. Give your all for that jersey for the whole 80 minutes. You just want to make a name for yourself of being a great All Black. That is every New Zealander's ambition; every player would say the same. When they hand you that black jersey, you are aware it is something really special. Next to your family, it is the most important thing in your life. It is because of what has gone before. That tradition has been carried a long time. It is understood by every boy in this country."

Rokocoko is a rare talent. His finishing is simply lethal, as effective as a searing hot poker through paper.

But young rugby players have to grow up quickly nowadays, and Rokocoko has already travelled a long journey, in more senses than one. Against a backdrop of rugby union's at times gaudy version of professionalism, young men like him have to handle a lot more than just assailants on the field. Physically, of course, the All Black is no shrinking violet: giant thighs and long legs stretch from the seat beside me, and his neck would have found favour among front row men in old-time rugby's amateur days.

But not even physical might can prevent the hurt some cause. "It upsets me sometimes when I read things about me that are not true. It is your personal life and while people have the right to focus on you, you should be able to expect honesty from them."

But the growing-up process is rapid. Mega-deals are floated enticingly before these young men, like rather good aromas from the kitchen. The All Black's Fijian counterpart, the hugely exciting wing Rupeni Caucaunibuca, will play for French club Agen next season, not because he has a penchant for that region's foie gras but for a bucket load of euros. Might Rokocoko be similarly tempted?

"I can't imagine going abroad. Of course, it is a temptation for a player but I am not going anywhere. Those deals are for others, such as those coming to retirement, not guys like myself. Just being an All Black means too much to walk away from it."

Conversely, he avows his greatest pleasure is to create scoring chances for others, a trait in a wing about as likely as hen's teeth. It is a better feeling, he says, because "it feels like you have had more input into the team, than if you just run in the tries yourself. Otherwise, you keep the goal of scoring yourself in your mind, not thinking first of the team. That is wrong." A different young man in every sense.