Rugby World Cup: England wing Joe Cokanasiga - from dancer to main event

Joe Cokanasiga
Joe Cokanasiga has scored seven tries in seven starts and two appearances off the bench for England

A hop, a burst of pace, a hint of a dummy, a step inside, another jag, a 40-metre canter under the posts - the ball clutched in one hand and four would-be tacklers choking on fumes having got nowhere near it.

Joe Cokanasiga has scored tries in front of capacity Twickenham crowds. He scored another two in England's 45-7 World Cup win over the United States in Kobe.

He has 12 back home in the Premiership.

But the score that still defines him most came as a teenager on a chilly October afternoon in front of a single stand and a just couple of thousand people.

Topsy Ojo had a front-row seat. The wing had been left out of the London Irish XV to give Cokanasiga his Championship debut against London Scottish in 2016.

"The reaction on the bench was shock and awe," he tells BBC Sport, remembering Cokanasiga's stunning solo effort.

"The position that he got the ball in initially - inside his 22m - you would conventionally think he should clear it, but that is not really in his mentality.

"His skillset is to run and beat people. He just took off and 10 seconds later he was under the sticks

"I remember we all looked at each other, jaws open, like 'wow, that was special'."

Video of the try spread quickly online. Only the most attentive viewers would spot the little finger-point salute that Cokanasiga makes to the crowd as he goes over though.

"I'm claiming that!" says Phil Cokanasiga, Joe's younger brother, London Irish prospect and England Under-18 international. "I was stood next to the camera, but I know he was pointing at me."

For much of his life Phil had seen Joe, three years his senior, tearing up pitches and opposition defences.

"I remember roughly 2008 or 2009, when I was seven or eight, we were playing for our school in Germany in a tag rugby tournament," Phil remembers.

"We were both playing a year up and I went over to watch him after I had finished my game. He was all speed, he couldn't run over people obviously, and he was pretty good even then."

Germany was just one stop in the pair's globe-trotting childhood. Their next was Brunei, the tiny oil-rich state perched on the island of Borneo in the South China Sea, as they followed their father Ilaitia's deployments as part of the British Army's Royal Logistic Corps.

It was there Joe started to turn his concentration from football - where he was a commanding centre-back - to rugby.

Stronger, bigger and faster than his teenage peers, he was fast-tracked from Brunei's schoolboy rugby to the adult game, playing alongside his father for club side Bandar Blacks.

Brunei's teenagers may have been spared the sight of Joe thundering at them with ball in hand, but Phil was not.

The pair would play rugby together in the garden, recreating the Super Rugby moments that they would see on satellite television.

Phil would mimic the Waratahs' Israel Folau. Joe preferred the Hurricanes' Julian Savea. The only glimpses the pair would get of English rugby in Brunei were viral clips of big hits and fisticuffs. The pair were grimly fascinated by Manu Tuilagi and Chris Ashton's memorable punch-up in May 2011.

Four years later and it was a 17-year-old Joe Cokanasiga, back in England and signed up to the London Irish academy, rather than Tuilagi or Ashton, making an appearance at the 2015 World Cup, albeit in a low-profile cameo.

Cokanasiga was part of a Fijian dance troupe who performed on the pitch before Stuart Lancaster's side's opener against the Islanders, posing for photographs with fans who were unaware that a future England star was in their midst.

Joe Cokanasiga
Cokanasiga (left) poses with a fan at the opening match of the 2015 World Cup

Joe may have left Fiji as a three-year-old, but Ilaitia makes sure both his sons remember that heritage.

"Dad always reminds Joe that when he represents England, he is also a Fijian and not to forget his roots," says Phil.

"He told us to back ourselves because we are very different to most players.

"A big thing was confidence and to always think that - I know that it sounds big-headed - we are the best on the field, because it brings out the best in us."

Touchline fathers always tend to think their sons are the best.

It is something when the players who had to compete against that same offspring for a starting spot agree.

Ojo has played almost 200 top-flight games as well as lining up opposite All Black hot-stepper Sitiveni Sivivatu in one of his two England appearances.

Can he remember playing with or against anyone like Cokanasiga?

"I played against Alessana Tuilagi a lot. He was a big physical carrier, but he would likely run straight at you," Ojo said.

"Then there are guys like Sinoti Sinoti who have a vicious step, but not that offload threat - whereas Joe offloads like Leone Nakarawa.

"That was the thing that stood out of me when I first saw him. He could carry the ball so easily in one hand - that was not something that you would teach to kids and it gave him an extra threat.

"You can't go low because he will just offload. if you go high, it is really difficult to get near the ball. It is a very different threat from that which you usually face.

"Growing up outside the system helped him, gave him the ability to do something different. I can't think of anyone who has all those threats in one package."

With Jonny May and Anthony Watson established as first-choice options and Jack Nowell available once more to head coach Eddie Jones, Cokanasiga's opportunities may be limited at this World Cup.

But if England are up against it and need a game-breaker, he could dance on the World Cup stage once more.

Phil Cokanasiga and Joe Cokanasiga
Phil and Joe Cokanasiga pose in the England dressing room after the latter's international debut against Japan in November 2018

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