England vs Ireland: Joe Cokanasiga tasked to overcome second-season nerves on biggest stage of them all

Eddie Jones wants his young wing to break out of the shackles put on him by Wales last weekend after finding himself targeted in their tactics to stop him

Jack de Menezes
Saturday 24 August 2019 08:50
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Eddie Jones hoping Kamikaze kids Curry and Underhill will be fit to face Ireland

Eddie Jones believes Joe Cokanasiga must learn how to overcome his second-season struggles after watching Wales target the young England wing in an effort to remove the danger that he poses.

Cokanasiga enjoyed a try-scoring display in the victory over Wales a fortnight ago, but found himself facing a barrage of high balls and kicks in behind from Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies as the Wales duo spotted a perceived weakness out wide last Saturday, while more often than not the giant Bath wing found himself facing two defenders instead of one.

The 21-year-old enjoyed a rapid rise to prominence after scoring tries in his first two international appearances last autumn that has given him a healthy ratio of one try every other match, but Jones believes the real hard work begins now as teams start to work him out.

“He’s going through that tough period at the moment,” Jones said after naming Cokanasiga in the starting line-up to face Ireland today. “They picked on him at the weekend and he has got to find a way to get in the game.

“This is a great opportunity on Saturday to show that he can 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. These are the games he needs to learn how to fight his way through test rugby.

“He is one of those kids who comes into test rugby and first couple of games, he is magic. Someone has blown some dust on him. Everything is good. Then teams work you out. It is like test cricket. 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. Test rugby is the same. 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? And how do I get around it.’ Joe is going through that process at the moment, so it’s good for him.”

That won’t be the only lesson on offer for Cokanasiga this weekend either. Opposite him will stand Jacob Stockdale, the Ireland wing who not so long ago found himself in a similar position of finding himself targeted after a dazzling 2017/18 campaign, having scored 10 tries in just nine internationals.

Stockdale’s try record slowed considerably going into last season, but the Ulster back learned how to adapt to that extra attention and bring his teammates into play – though he didn’t lose his scoring boots completely after grabbing the crucial moment in the victory over the All Blacks with both hands.

Cokanasiga knows this himself. “I feel like I have a lot more in me. That has been the most frustrating thing for me is that I have more to show. Getting my hands on the ball more for example and that comes from my work-rate and how hungry I am.”

But it is important to acknowledge where Cokanasiga has come from in such a short space of time. He found himself thrown into the deep end with England when, as a relatively unknown 19-year-old, he was taken by Jones on the tour of Argentina in 2017. He did not play a minute of rugby across either Test against the Pumas.

“Sometimes it feels like yesterday and sometimes when I look back and where I am now, it feels like I’ve grown and adapted to new environments,” he said, having been told in no uncertain terms that he was a long way off what was required to represent England. “It was that tour to Argentina. I got shocked about what I needed to do. I was quite immature at the time. I assumed everything would come to me. I wouldn’t need to work hard for it to happen.

“After Argentina, I sorted myself out. If I really wanted to play for England there was stuff that I needed to changed, mentality-wise in particular and take rugby more seriously.”

The Fiji-born wing can barely believe how far he's come in four years

Perhaps the perfect summary of this difference in that teenage Cokanasiga and the one who will run out with England this weekend is looking at where he was this time four years ago. The Fiji-born England international found himself at Twickenham for the opening match of the 2015 Rugby World Cup that was played between of all teams England and Fiji.

“I remember watching the 2015 Rugby World Cup,” he said. “I was actually at Fiji-England on the opening night for the Fiji Embassy and we were showcasing our country before the game started. I remember the vibe that night, and the whole vibe round the World Cup and thinking that I wanted to do all this one day, but it didn’t feel possible. I am now and that feels a bit weird.

“[I was doing] Fijian traditional dances at the front gates at Twickenham, doing the war dance. It feels weird doing that and now preparing for the next World Cup with England.”

The bulk of Saturday’s Ireland team also have fond memories of Twickenham, with 11 of Saturday’s starting line-up having been in the XV that kicked off against England in last year’s Six Nations Grand Slam-securing victory, with another five squad members among the replacements for good measure.

And after Wales and England knocked 10 bells out of each other last weekend, the personnel involved this week gives what should be a warm-up friendly something of a much more important feel about it.

Conor Murray expects a big-test atmosphere at Twickenham this Saturday

“I don’t know how you take the big-game element out of it,” said Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray. “In Twickenham, or against England, or away from home in general, it's a massive game and a game you've got to start really well. It's a game that could get away from you if you're not up for it, if you’re not up for it physically.

“It's all well and good doing your pre-season and all your fitness and weights and phase play but at the end of the day, the contact is a massive part of this game. You look at the momentum-givers they have - the Vunipolas – Mako is back this week – [Maro] Itoje, [Manu] Tuilagi, that's a massive part of the game against any team, in particular England.

"It's hugely important to get up for that side of the game, the nuts and bolts of the game are really important and then hopefully, on the back of that, the work we've done in the pre-season can flourish. Personally, as players and a team that are going to play this weekend, it's a Test match. You've got to get up for it, be really on top of your work, be physically and mentally ready. We've worked really hard on a few things and hopefully they'll flourish in the game."

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