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'Learning his trade at a cutting edge': Why the 19-year-old brother of an England winger has suddenly had his progress accelerated at London Irish

By Liam Heagney

Trending on RugbyPass

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Declan Kidney took fright at one stage while watching London Irish getting soundly beaten last week by Exeter, the defending Gallagher Premiership champions. It wasn’t the sight of the record-breaking Sam Simmonds scoring a hat-trick that had the Irish boss going weak at the knees, it was the little bit of arithmetic he did regarding three players he started that night, rookies Chunya Munga, Ben Donnell and Phil Cokanasiga.

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The trio share just a dozen Premiership starts between them in this 2020/21 season, but what did for Kidney versus the Chiefs was the moment when he added up the ages of the three players, two 20-year-olds and a 19-year-old and realised how old it made him feel. “We had Chunya playing second row, Ben Donnell playing six and Phil playing centre. When you added up the three ages I was still older than them – that was a bit depressing,” quipped Kidney, the former Ireland Grand Slam-winning coach who also twice led Munster to European glory. 

Giving youth a head start in their senior careers at London Irish has become a noticeable policy of Kidney’s at the Premiership club. For instance, Tom Parton, Ben Loader and Ollie Hassell-Collins have been developing nicely as a youthful back three and the experimentation doesn’t end there. 

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Munga and Donnell had been doing their respective bit to gain notice at lock and back row all season, while Cokanasiga has now joined the Irish party in recent weeks, a career-ending concussion for Theo Brophy-Clews and injury to Terrence Hepetema opening up selection for a teenager who made four appearances in the restarted 2019/20 campaign. 

With an emergency vacancy at No12 to fill, Cokanasiga has stepped forward and will start his third successive Premiership match in midfield when Irish visit Gloucester on Friday night. As the younger brother of Phil, the 23-year-old Bath winger who has been capped by England on nine occasions, the Cokanasiga name will surely attract attention.

“It is always the trouble with brothers, isn’t it, you get compared after a while,” said Kidney when asked how the younger sibling has been doing on his watch at Irish. “There are opportunities that came up his way with lads out injured, with Theo and Terence out, and he is a young man who has gone in there and he is learning his trade at a cutting edge. 

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“Everybody talks about giving the younger fellas experience. You want to do that but you want to win your matches at the same time. He will have benefitted from his exposure to date. I have been asking a lot of those younger fellas. It is hard to draw the difference between the seasons – we started back playing the end of the 19/20 season in August and in the last twelve months, he has had quite a bit of exposure now at senior level – more so than he might have had in a pre-pandemic year.

“His progression has been accelerated and hopefully we will see better things from him to come because when you are up against players like (Ollie) Devoto like that last week then you build confidence and go, ‘Okay, I played there, let’s see what happens in the next one’.”

Asked what has especially stood out about the youngster, Kidney added: “Probably bits that you haven’t seen yet. Like his vision with the ball in hand is quite good and when he gets more comfortable there you will probably see him do a couple of things with the ball there. 

“He is in between your centre who can be direct but also has a skill set to take gaps when they come so he has a dual skill set which is handy and he is just developing. Very early stages yet but because of the other parts of his game that he has to work on to exploit those to the full, he is not a one-trick pony. He can do a few different jobs.”

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'Learning his trade at a cutting edge': Why the 19-year-old brother of an England winger has suddenly had his progress accelerated at London Irish

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