How England can unleash the vast potential of Joe Cokanasiga

Joe Cokanasiga. - GETTY IMAGES
Joe Cokanasiga. - GETTY IMAGES

The focus of Eddie Jones’ touring party to Australia was largely on the recall of Billy Vunipola and the gain-line dominance he can provide England.

But the most exciting selection was that of powerful winger Joe Cokanasiga, who made the 36-man squad after shaking of an ankle knock on Sunday. After a torrid run of injuries, the Bath man has started to show glimpses of his best, both for his club and for England in the Barbarians defeat. Jones name-checked try scorer Cokanasiga after the match as one of the few that had impressed.

"I want him to play 100 Tests for England", the England coach told the BBC in 2019. The high hopes for the 6ft 4in wing have been significantly lowered since then. Cokanasiga made the 2019 World Cup squad, albeit not featuring in the knock-out stages, but has had an immensely frustrating time since.

England need Cokanasiga to come good on his huge potential after years of waiting for Manu Tuilagi to be fit and firing on a consistent basis.

Cokanasiga, who made his England debut in 2018 but is still just 24 years old, can provide the power and punch England need in the backs, if used in the right way.

Get him off his wing

If Cokanasiga is to help fill the Tuilagi-shaped hole in the England team, he must be given opportunities to roam off his wing. Against the Barbarians, Cokanasiga popped up in the midfield in both open play and off set-pieces.

Cokanasiga tends to be used as an option out the back rather than running the hard crash-ball line that Tuilagi would. However, his combination of pace, power and footwork can lead to a similar outcome.

In this second example, Cokanasiga benefits on the second phase, having followed the move around after a hard line from Ellis Genge.

Cokanasiga’s considerable 17-and-a-half stone frame has the ability to create yards where there should not be any. Last weekend, even when the timing of an inside ball from Marcus Smith was not quite right, he used his powerful leg drive to get over the gain-line.

Far more than a battering ram, Cokanasiga also demonstrated deft touches against the BaaBaas, including a delicate tip on to Jack Walker after drawing the attention of defenders. Cokanasiga is the type of physically imposing threat that can create space for others through presence alone.

He has always liked to get involved around the breakdown, spotting holes tight to the ruck off nine or even picking-and-going. He has the size of a forward, so why not?

It is crucial England’s structure continues to allow him this freedom in the Tests against Australia.

Surround him with ball players and speedsters

Balance across a backline is vital and while Cokanasiga adds a physical presence, surrounding his with complementary skill-sets can elevate his selection.

It seems inevitable that Smith and Owen Farrell will form the 10-12 axis, giving England two playmakers. This should allow Cokanasiga to work around into the midfield off the back of wrap-around plays more effectively, with Smith and Farrell both possessing the ability to give the killer pass.

It was noticeable against the Barbarians that Cokanasiga and Joe Marchant rotated positions in attack, with the Harlequins centre also comfortable on the wing.

One issue for England during the Six Nations was a lack of raw pace in the back three. For all Freddie Steward’s remarkable qualities, top-end speed is not one of them and his combination with Max Malins just looked too slow. Steward will start and while Cokanasiga undoubtedly can shift once he gets going, having a flyer on the other side would give England a nice balance.

Jonny May seems the perfect complement to Cokanasiga in terms of the pace he provides. May tends to stay on his wing which would also allow Cokanasiga to roam. Jack Nowell, on the other hand, also likes to play with freedom to get involved in close quarters, which he does well. But selecting both Cokanasiga and Nowell could undermine each other’s qualities and leave England short of speed and balance.

Use him in the backfield

One of England’s most maligned tactics of the unsuccessful Six Nations campaign was dropping Genge into the backfield to return French kicks. The not entirely unsuccessful innovation revealed a lack of alternatives within the English backline that day.

Against the Barbarians, it was apparent that Cokanasiga was deployed in that role, with Smith and Tommy Freeman feeding him carries. Cokanasiga did the job well, making yards and buying time for his team-mates to secure the ball at the breakdown.

Joe Cokanasiga of England hands off the tackle of Charles Ollivon of Barbarians during the International match between England and Barbarians at Twickenham Stadium on June 19, 2022 in London, England. - GETTY IMAGES
Joe Cokanasiga of England hands off the tackle of Charles Ollivon of Barbarians during the International match between England and Barbarians at Twickenham Stadium on June 19, 2022 in London, England. - GETTY IMAGES

From restarts, England would kick the ball left with Marchant and May leading the chase which allowed Cokanasiga to retreat into the backfield right away. The winger has the ability to carry the ball in one hand and has a strong offloading game which could come into play as multiple defenders will be sucked into the unenviable task of trying to tackle him with a run-up.

Use his height

England are blessed with plenty of height in the backline, even if out-and-out bulk is more sparse. Steward is a towering figure at full-back while Freeman is a rangy runner that could make his debut Down Under.

Cokanasiga, at 6ft 4in, is more renowned for his running ability than his aerial work but his height gives him an advantage. Smith looked for Cokanasiga from a cross-field kick early against the Barbarians, a tactic England have long used when the tall winger is on the pitch.

Although rather tedious, kick-chasing is a fundamental skill that international wingers must get right. Cokanasiga nailed Georgian winger Davit Niniashvili off one box-kick but got the timing of another challenge on Max Spring slightly wrong.

In the second half, he leapt highest to tap a box-kick back into English hands and his height should provide him the chance to do this fairly regularly, if the kick is on the money. England are fortunate that Steward, Marchant and May all thrive in this area but Jones will want Cokanasiga to do the same.

Don't become predictable

Cokanasiga has scored 11 tries in his 11 caps to date, in part because he is a devastating finisher that can make professional rugby players look like children.

England need to make sure Cokanasiga is given one-on-one opportunities on the wing as well as up the middle throughout the game. Variety in his usage makes it far more challenging to defend against him. England should therefore trust Marchant, who showed against France in the final match of the Six Nations that he can break the line with his clever angles and footwork, or Fraser Dingwall, to run some of the hard lines required in midfield.

Famously, England used Cokanasiga from the base of the scrum against Italy in 2019. Finding innovative ways to get a special talent like Cokanasiga into the game are well worth considering for an England side whose attack has well and truly stagnated.