Bath hope Joe Cokanasiga return will inspire giant step towards play-offs | Robert Kitson

Bath hope Joe Cokanasiga return will inspire giant step towards play-offs  | Robert Kitson


n paper the big story this weekend is whether Bath can hang tough at Saracens on Sunday and make the Premiership play‑offs, potentially at the expense of Bristol or Sale. In Joe Cokanasiga’s case, however, the twin imposters of sporting triumph and disaster are exactly that. After everything big Joe has endured this past year, the vicissitudes of professional rugby are now strictly relative.

Even the injured knee – and subsequent complications to his lower body and back after training on it with England – that sidelined him for the best part of 12 months has been nothing compared to the family trauma the Cokanasiga clan have been enduring. As the Guardian revealed in March, the government is refusing to allow the winger’s father, Iliatia, a former sergeant who served three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, to rejoin his family in the UK. It is a situation which continues to shame all those responsible for his plight.

As of this week Iliatia, who spent almost 14 years with the British army, is still in Fiji, separated from his wife and children. Cokanasiga has spoken of his anger at the situation but, as yet, nothing has changed. “We are still fighting that battle,” his son says softly. “There’s nothing we can really do, it’s out of our control.” It can only be hoped that whatever is left of British fairness and decency eventually prevails.

How wonderful it would be, therefore, if the 6ft 4in, 18-stone Cokanasiga could roar back and claim the England starting place that was within his grasp when he flew to the Rugby World Cup in Japan. The last time he represented England, a year ago this week, he scored two tries against USA in Kobe. It was his last competitive game until the comeback win for Bath against Gloucester last week. The sight of Cokanasiga coming off the bench to set up Ben Spencer for a match-clinching try at the Rec was a reminder of how much club and country have missed him.

Simply making it back on to the field has been a test of character. During the World Cup the 22‑year‑old cut an increasingly downcast figure, suffering from a knee tendon injury that Bath felt could have been better managed. Finally, after rehab failed to heal it properly, he had an operation in Sweden before commencing the painstaking process of rebuilding his body and soul.

“There were definitely times, some dark times, when I thought I wouldn’t make it this season,” he says now. “But credit to the medical team, my family and my girlfriend, who was my part-time psychologist. She kept me sane. Lockdown was a blessing for me, it gave me time. I feel like a completely different player and person now, mentally and physically.”

Ilaitia Cokanasiga at home in Fiji in March.

Working with the psychologist Don McPherson, who helped Andrew Watson bounce back from long-term achilles tendon problems, also helped to bolster his confidence. Even so, keeping his emotions in check before his return against Gloucester was difficult. “I didn’t want to let the emotion take over me. It’s been a long journey and I was a bit nervous. My mum was devastated she couldn’t see my first game back [after the government ruled out spectators being present] but I felt their presence. I just tried to stay calm and make an impact.”

Bath will be hoping he can continue to do so in the coming weeks. At his best, with the ball clutched in one giant paw, Cokanasiga offers something different from any other England‑qualified winger. The bad news for defenders is he is committed to improving further. “I came in a little bit overweight but we’ve turned that into good weight. Physically – and most importantly mentally – this is the best I’ve felt.”

With Bath third entering the final round one point ahead of Sale and Bristol, a victory against Saracens will be enough to propel them into the semi-finals. They have secured seven wins in eight games since the Premiership season resumed in August and Cokanasiga has detected a significant change in mood. “There’s more belief. You can tell when you’re in camp there’s something different.”

Bath’s director of rugby, Stuart Hooper, is anxious not to heap unnecessary pressure on his returning giant but accepts the club and England have at their disposal a rare talent: “The great thing with Joe is he’s obviously box office.”

All that remains is for him to concentrate on the things he can control. “The focus is on doing as best as we can for Bath and hopefully getting that final spot,” he says. “If England come, playing for them has always been a thing for me.”

If anybody deserves an upturn in fortune this winter it is the Cokanasiga family, young and old.