The Bath wing has better footwork than Fred Astaire and a scoring record to match
IG JOE COKANASIGA has gained many admirers since joining Bath last summer, but cult status takes a little longer to acquire. Semesa Rokoduguni, another Fiji-born son of an Army man at the Rec but ten years Joe’s senior, inspires awe on a different level.
If Alex Goode’s England snub provokes bewilderment, Rokoduguni’s omissions down the years have been close behind. Four Test caps do scant justice to a player whom George Ford once called the best finisher he’s ever played with.
At 31, Rokoduguni will probably have to be content with club rugby from now on, so pity all those Premiership defenders. As Christmas approached, he had scored 48 tries in 100 league games, a staggering ratio given Bath’s erratic form in his six years at the club.
He is a master of the interception, a skill in itself, but many of his tries involve brilliant footwork and the sort of strength in contact we used to associate with Rory Underwood.
Check out some of his tries on video and you see him confronted by two defenders. ‘How does he score this?’ you think. Andrea Masi probably thought the same thing when Roko eluded him in a 5m channel with such fleet-footed fluidity that the then Wasps full-back wasn’t even close to laying a hand on him. It’s still my favourite sidestep ever.
B“His ability to beat people in no space at all is remarkable,” says Stuart Hooper, Bath’s general manager. “Some of the finishes he comes up with, the way he squirms his way over, are incredible.
“He’s also incredibly strong and his awareness of his own body is amazing. He can tightrope his way down the line, then step inside and do real damage.”
Neither is the work of ‘RokoHoudini’ off the ball to be sniffed at, and it’s perhaps only the odd missed tackle that has prevented him becoming a national icon.
The wing first pitched up in England as a teenage Army recruit, wearing fleeces in the British summer, and remained off the radar of Premiership clubs for several years.
Dorset club Lytchett Minster were first to benefit from his talents – “You could hear the sound of his tackles from the touchline,” a coach there recalled – but his rugby exploits for the British
Army meant it was just a matter of time before he was snapped up. Bath got there first but it was a race they were always likely to win because of their proximity to his Army base in Warminster. Rokoduguni remains a serving soldier, with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, and has two paymasters. “He still has to go on Army training exercises,” Hooper says.
Wife Annie and son Elijah are at every home game and the family has been warmly embraced by the community, the local churches in particular.
If his England career is indeed behind him, you won’t walk ten yards along the Avon before bumping into someone affronted by that. What is Hooper’s take?
“Coaches have had different reasons for not picking him for England but the thing with Roko is to remember why you would pick him, as opposed to not pick him. In my opinion there’s a huge weight in favour of why you would pick him.”
Roko himself is far too polite to feel cheated and keeps some paternal advice close to heart. As a lad in Fiji, he admired the medals on his father’s military uniform and once asked if he could wear them. “No,” came the reply. “You don’t get given stuff like this, you must earn it.”
He’ll keep driving on, trying to improve for the team’s betterment and earning ever more respect from his team-mates.
“As a rugby player he’s a genuine match-winner,” concludes Hooper. “But the main thing about Roko is that as a person he hasn’t changed. He’s a kind-hearted family man, a tremendous human being.” With magic in his feet.