A quiz question to begin. Who was the last man to represent England while at a second-tier club? The answer, courtesy of a replacement appearance in Auckland lasting around 123 seconds between arrival and final whistle, is Chris Pennell, of Worcester.
Shorn of players involved in the 2014 Premiership final for the first Test of a three-match series by insane scheduling, Stuart Lancaster had rewarded the full-back for a superb domestic season with a sole cap against New Zealand. But Pennell’s outstanding performances had not saved the Warriors from relegation, which had been confirmed a month previously. He was on his way down when the England call-up came.
Joe Cokanasiga, the 19-year-old London Irish winger named in Eddie Jones’s squad for the summer tour to Argentina, is on his way up in more ways than one. Born in Fiji, Cokanasiga moved to England at the age of three to join his father Ilaitia, a member of the British Army. Cokanasiga lived in Germany and Brunei as his father toured there, gradually trading football for rugby. Before returning to the UK in 2013, Joe and Ilaitia formed a father-son centre partnership. Joe remembers his mother shouting from the touchline, demanding that Ilaitia look after him.
The London Irish academy proved an excellent nursery, as it has for so much back-line talent – new Lions Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson to name two. Just last season, Cokanasiga was part of the club’s champion under-18 side. Topsy Ojo, the owner of two caps from England’s trip to New Zealand in 2008, was part of a coaching network of current and former Irish players.
Still playing, 31-year-old Ojo has had a prime view as the 6ft 4in, 17½st Cokanasiga has progressed into the first team and helped Irish to the Championship play-offs after topping the table. The ascent may have been meteoric, but it is not entirely surprising to those in the know.
“I guess he hasn’t played much top-level rugby,” Ojo says. “But having played with him and trained with him, it was easy to see this going the way it has done. There is no limit to how quickly he can progress. He’s a young man, he’s learning the game, but in terms of raw talent he is unbelievable. I’m really chuffed for him.
“This tour allows Eddie to have a really good look at him and even accelerate his learning. We’ve got the play-offs coming up and he has this goal ahead of him. Hopefully at Irish we benefit from that momentum.”
It took 24 minutes for Cokanasiga to assert himself on Irish’s promotion effort. On his competitive debut against London Scottish in October, the first of only 11 senior matches to date, he took a pass from full-back Tommy Bell and scorched 80 metres, travelling from the middle of his own 22 to beneath the opposition posts. An outrageous dummy and wicked step off his right foot punctuated an eye-popping score.
Jones was playing to the gallery with the simplicity of his “he’s big and quick, mate” assertion last Thursday. Videos of Cokanasiga in action for Irish age-groups demonstrate delicate footwork and the appreciation of how to unbalance defenders, as well as bulldoze them.
As an ever-present in England Under-20s’ Grand Slam, wearing the No 14 shirt for four games and coming off the bench in another, he was often used as part of midfield strike moves. His offloading indicated intelligence and subtlety besides strength. Jones knows all this.
Ojo suggests highly rated skills coach Rory Teague would have offered valuable advice while Cokanasiga was in camp with England Under-20, and also highlights the influence of the Irish academy coaches.
“We’re fully integrated at Irish. The first team have worked with the academy guys throughout the season and I did a bit of coaching with Joe in last season’s under-18 team. There is a whole group of guys that have come through together.
“The biggest thing is that if he’s ever needed anything, he’d been able to come to whoever he feels comfortable talking to. Last year, he was under Paul Hodgson and Declan Danaher, so he’s been well schooled and he’s had a lot of good people around him.”
Team-mates Alex Lewington and Fiji international Aseali Tikoirotuma – in close support for that try against Scottish – are two more role-models in Nick Kennedy’s set-up. Ojo holds the club record of 80 career tries over 273 matches for Irish, so he knows a scoring threat when he sees one.
“He offers real punch in attack,” Ojo adds of Cokanasiga. “Obviously he has that Islander DNA, which you can see in the way he moves, the way he carries the ball in one hand.
“If you want someone who can cause damage in attack and get over the line, Joe will be right up there. There are other guys around the Premiership who maybe have a bit more experience, but with Joe’s physique, stature and potential, he has every chance of getting into that Test team.”
Semesa Rokoduguni, Christian Wade and Marland Yarde, another Irish academy graduate who won an England bow on the corresponding Argentina tour in 2013, are just three wide men Cokanasiga has seemingly leapfrogged to win this chance. But Jones has said this trip to Argentina is about allowing rough diamonds to shine. Like Under-20 colleagues Nick Isiekwe, Ben and Tom Curry, Cokanasiga has been fast-tracked under the assumption that he can already contribute at senior international level.
That brings expectation, as will possible comparisons with another Fijian, Joe Rokocoko, who won the first of 68 All Blacks caps at 20. However, London Irish are at Doncaster in the first leg of their Championship play-off semi-final today. Cokanasiga starts on the left wing and Ojo, outside the match-day squad as a mark of Irish’s faith in youth, insists he has the ideal character to complement his considerable ability.
“Whenever Joe gets his hands on the ball, you hear the elevation of the crowd. They’re expecting him to do something and, more often than not, he does. He’s dealt with that really well, though.
“He’s a down-to-earth kid, a very humble lad. He’s just gone about his business really well and he plays with a smile on his face. Now, if we get through what we need to at Irish, he can look forward to having one hell of a tour.”
If all goes to plan for Irish, Cokanasiga will not be a second-tier player by the time his England debut comes. Even if he is, Eddie Jones will not care. He has recognised a gifted young man on the rise.