England head into this week licking their wounds after a demoralising loss in Cardiff to Wales, a result which ended their Grand Slam hopes and injected fresh impetus into those of their local rivals.
The Azzurri deserve a lot of credit for the performance they put in against Ireland in Rome just over a week ago, but Conor O’Shea’s side are on a five-match losing streak, and their only wins since the beginning of 2017 have come against Tier 2 opponents, in the forms of Fiji, Japan and Georgia. Their last win over a Tier 1 side was at the tail-end of 2016, when they beat South Africa in Florence.
Throw into the mix the fact that England have never lost to Italy, boasting a perfect record of 24 wins in 24 matches, and the form suggests this is a good opportunity for England to rediscover some of the momentum that was lost in Cardiff last Saturday.
Ireland’s efforts in Rome show that O’Shea’s Italy should not be underestimated and that too many changes to the XV can be more disruptive than insightful, but there are players due an opportunity to stake a claim for a spot in the England side and none more so than Bath’s Joe Cokanasiga. Despite almost being outfoxed two years ago, a match against Italy at Twickenham is the closest England will come to a contest where they can confidently experiment in the Six Nations.
Cokanasiga took his opportunity in the autumn well, making a try-scoring international debut against Japan, before backing it up with another score against Australia a week later. A knee injury in December effectively ruled the wing out of the opening round of the Six Nations, but he has shown good form for Bath since returning to action in February and was on the bench for England’s trip to Cardiff.
England’s final two matches against Italy and Scotland, both of which are at Twickenham, would be valuable opportunities to continue to get Cokanasiga up to speed in international rugby, with the wing offering a number of attributes that could prove valuable at the Rugby World Cup later this year and that England’s other options simply don’t boast.
At 6’ 4” and weighing in at just shy of 18 stone, there is no denying the physical presence he brings. Crucially, though, those aren’t just numbers on a page, they are components of the effective game he puts out on the pitch.
Combined with his speed, his size allows him to generate a power in the contact that few others in English rugby can match, and he gives an alternative to England’s other options, who win through speed or ball-tracking. Cokanasiga doesn’t look for contact unnecessarily and his footwork actually allows him to beat plenty of defenders before the contact is even initiated, but as a fall-back option, it’s a remarkably effective one.
Similarly, his height and speed combination make him very effective in the kick chase and in any side’s attempt to win back aerial balls. It was arguably this element of his game, alongside his work rate in the area, that impressed people most in his first two England caps, with many people keyed into the physicality he would bring in contact, instead. Given the way England have played in the first three games of the championship, adding another player capable of chasing and winning back kicks could be pivotal, not to mention offering a valuable alternative as a ball-carrier should England decide to put the ball through the hands more often than they did against Ireland, France and Wales.
What his inclusion would do, in particular, is test out his defensive ability at this level.
As with any bigger wing, opposition teams will try to turn him, to exploit the space around him and to prevent him from keeping the game in front of him. Against Japan and Australia, he coped well with this and his agility and ‘turning circle’ are arguably better than you would usually expect of a man his size, but his positioning and reading of the game are things that will only get better with time and experience in the position.
By bringing Cokanasiga into the XV for the next two games, Eddie Jones will have a much better idea of his readiness for the Rugby World Cup.
Jonny May is surely on the plane, given his form over the last 12 months, whilst Anthony Watson offers valuable flexibility by being able to play full-back, too, and if his comeback from injury goes well, he will also be in the mix. Then you start getting to the tough calls.
Jack Nowell has been consistent and brings versatility across the back line and Chris Ashton is a potent ball-tracker and excellent reader of the game, but neither offers the physical presence of Cokanasiga. It could well be that the three of them are duking it out for two spots in Jones’ Rugby World Cup squad, with Ollie Thorley as a bolting dark horse also in contention.
Right now it would look like Cokanasiga, Thorley aside, is the least likely to make the trip to Japan, but is he actually the best-suited to this new-look England?
In a kick-heavy, territorial game plan, he offers an aerial ability that neither Nowell nor Ashton can quite match, whilst he has the game-breaking skill set as a ball-carrier to offer England a valuable alternative when, such as it did in Cardiff, relentlessly going to the boot simply does not work.
He doesn’t have the experience or the versatility of Nowell or Ashton and maybe in five months’ time they are the clear-cut choices to go to Japan, but Jones and the rest of the England coaches won’t ever know for sure unless they give Cokanasiga a run in the team to finish the Six Nations.
When x-factor ability and a suitability to execute a pragmatic game plan complement each other as well as they do in Cokanasiga, it’s usually wise not to ignore it.
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