The 'top of the list' impression Cokanasiga has made at Leicester
Leicester boss Steve Borthwick has shared his thoughts about the impact that Phil Cokanasiga, the 21-year-old signed from London Irish for the 2022/23 season, has had in the opening months of the new Gallagher Premiership campaign. The capture of the youngster last May dented the ambition of the Exiles to stop being a feeder club where players who graduate from their academy exit to other clubs to achieve their Test-level ambitions.
The likes of Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph and Joe Cokanasiga – Phil’s older brother – were among the list of players who had previously quit Irish in the belief that their representative-level ambitions were best served elsewhere.
That pattern appeared to have ended with the England training squad selection this past year of the likes of Ollie Hassell-Collins, Chunya Munga and Tom Pearson, uncapped recognition that was followed by Henry Arundell and Will Joseph – the younger brother of Jonathan at Bath – getting game time from Eddie Jones.
Despite all that reputational progress, though, Cokanasiga still slipped through their net. “You are going to win some and lose some,” shrugged Declan Kidney, the London Irish director of rugby, when quizzed at the time by RugbyPass about what had unfolded.
“Sometimes players can get frustrated if they are not getting enough time but Phil knew he had a pathway here with us and he will have his own reasons for that [joining Leicester], but it is not like he is running away from the club.
“You always know a player’s reaction as well then too when they are leaving, you know if they want to go because they really want to go. It’s not a case of that. We wish Phil well for the future and who knows about him coming back here in years to come.”
Six months on from that transfer decision, Cokanasiga has quickly got his feet in under the Leicester table, featuring in all five of their Premiership matches so far ahead of Sunday’s trip to Harlequins, a match he has been rested for. The youngster had only made ten Premiership appearances for Irish since a September 2020 debut, so to have made half that tally over the course of recent weeks at Leicester is a testament to his accelerated progress.
Asked by RugbyPass to gauge how Cokanasiga fared in his 160 minutes’ involvement, exposure where he played the full 80 at Saracens and was a second-half sub versus Exeter, Newcastle, Northampton and Sale, Borthwick said: “He is clearly a really talented player. He has raw power, is very good with the ball in his hands and is a young man who has lots of potential. What we have got to do is coach him really well to maximise that.
“He has fitted in brilliantly, he is a young guy who is pretty confident in his ability, pretty self-assured. I have been impressed by his self-reliance, I have been impressed by his independence and I’m impressed by his attitude. When we did the debrief post-training the first day he trained here every one of the coaches was asked which player stood out and everyone one of them had Phil Cokanasiga on top of the list.”
Borthwick previously worked with Joe Cokanasiga, the soon-to-be 25-year-old older brother of Phil, during his time at Jones’ England. How do the brothers compare? “They are alike in both powerful carriers and they are both very comfortable with that ball, very good handling skills, a lot of natural ability as rugby players and reasonably quiet as personalities but really positive characters.”
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