Joe Cokanasiga can win 100 Test caps and is firmly in England’s plans for this year’s Rugby World Cup but if he is to fulfil his potential then he will have to be patient as Eddie Jones paces out his international future having left the winger out of the team for Saturday’s Six Nations clash against Scotland.
It is rare that a player left out of the matchday squad ahead of a weekend where the Six Nations title is on the line creates one of the main headlines, but that’s what happens when you go from winning Man of the Match in England’s round four win over Italy — following a performance where Cokanasiga caused general havoc — to being exiled from the party for Saturday’s Calcutta Cup showdown.
But as Cokanasiga licks his wounds and the rugby world shuts their collective surprised mouths, Jones gave the biggest indication yet that even though the winger will not be fast-tracked and rushed into the starting Test XV, he could go to Japan in England’s 31-man squad.
“I don’t need to fast-track him. I’ve got him on the right track. There’s only one track; the right track. We’ve got a good plan in place for him. He’ll be ready by the World Cup,” Jones said of Cokanasiga. “I don’t need to reveal my selection plans for the future but I do know that he’ll be ready for the World Cup.”
Cokanasiga will have to navigate the same path from eager hot shot to Test rugby mainstay as Matt Giteau and George Smith did during Jones’ Wallabies tenure. It is the same treatment Jones gave Maro Itoje when he was breaking through into England’s ranks back in 2016.
So, Jones’ decision to omit Cokanasiga from Saturday’s Calcutta Cup clash isn’t a criticism of his ability, form or potential. But in Jones-speak, this is the ultimate compliment.
“With young players, particularly in this environment, you’ve got to look after them,” Jones said. “I want him to play 100 Tests for England – I don’t want him to just play 10 Tests. Sometimes you push young guys forward and sometimes you’ve got to pull them back.
“It’s about taking a measured approach at the start of their career, letting them develop their game and expose them to the right games, then you get a good player – and that’s what we’re doing with him.”
Jones has long wanted an ‘x-factor’ type option in his World Cup party, looking for a player to make a similar impact to Nehe Milner-Skudder in the All Blacks’ 2015 triumph. Cokanasiga, who bulldozed and danced his way through Italy’s defence last weekend and did similar against the Wallabies in the autumn Tests, fits that criteria as when asked whether he can be England’s secret weapon in Japan, Jones responded: “100 percent”. It’s just a case now of ensuring he peaks at the right time.
The England coach has long used cricket analogies when talking about his side’s tactics or his selection calls. Back in 2016 ahead of their trip to Australia, it was the “bodyline” approach and now Cokanasiga is at the crease.
“When you’re a young batsman and your first Test is against the West Indies in Perth and you bat No 3, you might not get too many runs. So you pick a Test where they’re playing on a flat track, bat them at six, let them get runs, then you bring them in the next Test and you quietly build them up.”
Added to any tactical implications for Jones’ decision to pick Jack Nowell over Cokansiga, is a mixture of ensuring Cokanasiga adapts to the pressure of on-field Test rugby and equally, the circus around him.
Despite his remarkable performance against Italy, Cokanasiga was never really in the frame for Scotland. Jones shut down any notion of Cokanasiga being used as an impact substitution as he wants Ben Te’o in that role.
Equally Jones has little time for opinions outside of the camp, or criticisms of his selection policy. Sir Clive Woodward likened Cokanasiga to the great Jonah Lomu, but those comparisons were brushed away by Jones but instead he wants his winger to stay his normal, humble self and focus on improving back at his club side Bath. But that’s not to say that Cokanasiga won’t feel a pang of jealousy when he sees Jack Nowell run out in the No.14 shirt on Saturday.
“Well they never understand,” Jones said. “As soon as you tell them they’re not in the team, you get this blank look. And that’s normal for any player. The understanding comes from where he goes now. He’s a good kid, he’ll be right.”