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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Joe Cokanasiga: ‘Staying angry for a long time doesn’t help anything’ | Bath

At last there are a few rays of sunshine to help raise Joe Cokanasiga’s spirits. No one in English rugby has been on a more intense emotional road these past three years but finally light is visible at the end of a dispiritingly dark tunnel. “Everything happens for a reason,” murmurs the big man softly. “I’m a big believer in that. My time will come.”

Sitting outside on the steps of Bath’s country mansion training ground, with the daffodils flowering behind him and spring firmly in the air, his optimistic smile is also a much-needed antidote to the massive challenges the Cokanasiga family have had to confront, many shamefully inflicted on them by the British government.

Imagine being Cokanasiga’s father, Ilaitia, who served almost 14 years in the British army, including two tours of Iraq and one in Afghanistan, only to be denied re-entry to the UK after being told he no longer had a legal right to remain. Now imagine being his mother Kitty, in tears on the phone to her stranded husband as she fought to overcome a cancerous brain tumour. Or Big Joe himself, representing a country which suddenly decided to turn its back on his family and other servicemen in similar positions.

Then ladle on top the psychological effects of the two knee injuries which first restricted him at the 2019 Rugby World Cup and has latterly been driving him to distraction again. The damaged PCL [posterior cruciate ligament] he sustained in a pre-season friendly against Cardiff last September almost broke him. “That was probably the hardest part. I remember walking back from the shops after I got the call. It was devastating. I was with my girlfriend, Rosie, and I was like: ‘I don’t want to do it any more. I don’t want to go through everything again.”

At 6ft 4in tall and weighing in at just under 120kg, a fit Cokanasiga is precisely the kind of force of nature England could have done with this winter. It is the same story with Manu Tuilagi, who had been hoping to feature for Sale Sharks against Bath this weekend. How much would Eddie Jones give to have the pair of them fully ready to rumble on tour in Australia this July?

It does not seem so long ago that Jones was purring over Cokanasiga – “There’s something a little bit special about him” – prior to his try-scoring display against Australia in November 2018. Of late, though, the 24-year-old has had to dig deep simply to get back on to the field. “Someone who inspires me a lot is my mum. She’s going through her chemotherapy and has had a couple of surgeries. I thought: ‘She’s shown how strong she is and I want to show her how strong I am.’”

Thankfully Kitty’s operations were a success and her most recent tests have been clear. His sister, Missy, has also just had a baby – “She’s our little ray of sunshine at the moment” – while their parents are finally reunited in Didcot, trying not to be bitter about Ilaitia’s year-long exile in Fiji. Among other things it prevented him from travelling to watch his eldest son wear the white of England at the 2019 World Cup.

While Ilaitia now has indefinite leave to remain, the normally affable Joe has previously used the word “betrayal”. Having grown up on British army bases in Germany and Brunei – “I spent all my life involved with the army” – does he still feel that way? “Definitely. What I don’t understand is why it became a thing in the first place. Many Commonwealth soldiers have lost their lives and you still don’t want to give their families and people like them permission to stay in the UK?”

Joe Cokanasiga scores a try in dramatic fashion against Bristol in his second match back after regaining full fitness.
Joe Cokanasiga scores a try in dramatic fashion against Bristol in his second match back after regaining full fitness. Photograph: Patrick Khachfe/JMP/Shutterstock

What a remarkable family the Cokanasigas must be, then, to still be thinking of others rather than themselves. “My parents are very religious. They’re all about forgiveness. Staying angry for a long time doesn’t help anything and gives you a bad heart. It’s better to use what happened to us to help other people.” The family, accordingly, continue to campaign through the British Legion for Commonwealth service families to have the collective right to remain. “We’re just trying to raise more awareness, to let people know that it’s still going on.”

At the same time, though, there is also his own professional future to consider. The tendonitis that spoiled his 2019 World Cup sidelined him for almost a year and he has featured in just two Premiership games off the bench this season. To compound his bad luck, he has had Covid three times. “The first time I think I deserved to get it because I went to the Cheltenham festival. It was probably the worst I’ve ever felt. The second time I had to do about 20 days isolation. Then I had it again recently when I was pretty much back running, which also put me back.”

Over the winter, he admits, he almost lost his mojo completely. As a kid he had always dreamed of going into the army before his father suggested rugby might be worth a shot. But despite being recalled by England and scoring four tries in two Tests against the USA and Canada last July he has latterly been working with Bath’s psychologist, Katie Warriner, to recapture his old zest. “The club suggested I take two weeks just to train and find why I want to play again. She was trying to find my ‘why’. The biggest thing that came out of it was wanting to make my family proud. Not focusing on what anyone else thinks.”

He has also had to learn to be more patient and to appreciate that his best form will not always resurface overnight. “Before I came back I thought it would all come back straight away. That’s how I got frustrated. Now I’ve got a clearer picture. As Eddie Jones says: ‘Just focus on the little basics and everything comes together.’

Having also worked with another noted psychologist, Don Macpherson, he is equally aware of the “monkey” of self-doubt that can sit on the shoulders of every athlete. “Something that Don said was: ‘Everyone has it, it’s just whether you can control it at the right time.’ You’ve just got to learn how to control your monkey.”

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Now the time has arrived to put all that theory into practice and to transform frustration into joy. “You think: ‘Why is it always me?’ Sometimes I had a little sulk, especially during my rehab. But then you see people on the news in a much worse position than you are.”

He found it easier, though, not to watch the Six Nations – “I just feel like I’m missing out” – preferring instead to visualise himself once more running riot in a white jersey. “I daydream about it. The Australia tour has been my goal ever since I got back. I want to play for England again.” And if that chance arises? Pass him the ball and he senses his old swagger – “I’m going to do what I do. Try and stop me” – will swiftly reappear. “My time will come,” he repeats quietly. If any family deserves a sunnier outlook, it is the Cokanasiga clan.

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