Joe Cokanasiga: England snub felt like end of the world – now I focus on my ‘super strength’

Joe Cokanasiga celebrates scoring a try for Bath
Joe Cokanasiga has rebuilt his confidence - David Davies/PA

“I feel like I am old now,” says Joe Cokanasiga, with one of his beaming smiles. If it seems like a strange thing for a 26-year-old to say, his point is understandable. In rugby terms, the Bath wing feels like he has already seen too much of his international career slip through his fingers like sand.

He admits his last setback, missing out on selection for England’s 33-man World Cup squad, felt like it could have been definitive. Just two days earlier, he had started in England’s opening warm-up match against Wales at Twickenham only for head coach Steve Borthwick to deliver the devastating news.

“It was very hard for me. I thought it was the end of the world,” he adds. A brief recall for England’s final warm-up match as cover after Elliott Daly and Henry Arundell picked up injuries did nothing to ease his pain, neither did the confirmation of Jonny May as the injury replacement for Anthony Watson in the World Cup squad.

When the Fiji-born son of a former British army sergeant made his England debut in 2018, scoring a try against Japan and scoring again, against Australia, the following weekend, Cokanasiga had seemed destined to become a star at the 2019 World Cup, never mind the tournament in France four years later. Former England head coach Eddie Jones declared there was “something a little bit special about him”. (watch video below)

But inconsistent form, and injury, fractured those hopes. He scored twice on his opening appearance in the 2019 World Cup against the USA, but did not feature again in the tournament, and did not feature for England again until 2021, scoring four tries in games against the USA and Canada during the British and Irish Lions tour.

It proved to be a false dawn. Even with the game’s seemingly insatiable demand for players with power and pace – the 6ft 4ins and 18st Cokanasiga is blessed with both in spades – he still just has 14 caps to his name.

Critically though, his ambition still burned brightly and after a period of reflection and a back-to-basics approach, at Borthwick’s request, to focus on his “super-strength”, his blistering form for table-topping Bath – six tries in their last four games – is expected to earn him a return to the England squad for this Six Nations Championship.

Interestingly, he describes missing out on the World Cup as the turning point and what is clear is that Bath head coach Johann van Graan has been instrumental in stripping his game back and rebuilding it with an injection of self-confidence.

“I struggled a little bit coming back into the club but then you just want to play again and you realise it’s not the end of the world,” he adds. “I think it was a blessing in disguise for me because it allowed me to keep working on the things I need to work on.

“I played the first couple of games and Johann did well looking after me and giving me time off when I needed it. He stuck by me and gave me confidence. I think that’s a big word we use. It’s about having confidence going into games now.

“I think last season I struggled a little bit with my carries. But I figured out this is my super strength and I’ve used it a lot more this season. I feel over the last couple of games I’ve slowly built up and the consistency is there. When I do get the ball, like I said before, I’m having a lot more fun.

“We speak about it a lot at Bath. The team is full of powerful carriers and that’s our job. Johann simplifies it down to every time you get the ball, you’ve just got to run hard.” (watch video below)

With Van Graan prioritising ball-carrying ability in his title-chasing side, England could also become the beneficiaries in 2024 as Borthwick looks to evolve his squad at the start of a new World Cup cycle.

“I have been fortunate enough to coach some very big and fast wingers but his size is something he can use so much,” says Van Graan, the former South Africa forwards coach, who joined Bath from Munster last year. “(Against Harlequins) he literally ran over three guys and still had power to finish. I’m so happy for him. (watch video below)

“He came back very disappointed to not go to the World Cup and being left out after that Welsh test. There has been some very good communication from Steve and the England team on what he needed to work on. Aerially, he has improved so much. Credit to him. I keep saying to him he is the biggest winger I have ever coached.”

His growing maturity seems to be bringing the best out of his game now, as is his ability to move on from mistakes, when previously they might have hung heavily on his shoulders.

“Being in and out of England has been frustrating for me. I feel like I’m old now,” he adds. “I’m 26 but I feel like I’m old rugby wise. It takes a couple of years to get used to everything. Going back to confidence, that’s the thing that’s driving me.

“I think just focusing on the simple stuff and going into games with a bit more of a clear head. We speak at Bath about the next job. It’s a cliché but if you make a mistake, it’s ‘next job’. I do a lot of stuff off the field just focusing on the next thing and not letting things build up. I’m still working on that. When you’re having fun it’s easy to forget about things.”