- Ex-Bayonne and Racing 92 winger Joe Rokocoko remains based in Paris, having hung up his playing boots in 2019, and is working at the latter club with the Academy and Sevens sides.
- The former Blues and All Blacks flyer, who featured in 68 Test matches, shares his views on South Africa's wing options and why he has been dazzled by the fleet-footed Cheslin Kolbe.
- He also talks the start of Super Rugby Aotearoa and Dan Carter's surprise move to the Blues.
Sport24 asked: You played the Springboks 15 times. Which battles stand out?
Joe Rokocoko: All of them! It was one match I made sure my preparation was on point. When you faced the Springboks you had to be up for it both mentally and physically because if you weren’t, you would get bullied. You would get chucked around and physically dominated if you didn’t bring your physical presence to match South Africa. As All Blacks, we always prided ourselves on the Tests against the Springboks, which were the pinnacle. Mentally, you also had to be attuned and we would say to ourselves, “Ok, we are going to play against the giants.” Once you stepped onto that field there was no holding back. Yes, sometimes people said we should be the favourites but a few times we felt like the underdogs in terms of size and passion. We had to reach another level to match the Springbok forward pack. What I will always remember about facing the Boks is the high balls I had to field! But the thing that stands out the most is the respect we had for each other. The Boks were ruthless and bullies on the field but off the field they were just genuine people to hang around with.
Sport24 asked: How did the Springbok class of 2009 force the All Blacks to adapt?
Joe Rokocoko: It was all about timing for that Bok team because they were on a roll coming into the competition. They built up momentum and we had to change our game plan. (Under Peter de Villiers the Springboks won three consecutive Tests against the All Blacks in 2009). The kicking game really came into play in 2009 and we realised that the Springboks would always come with a return kick. In 2010, we changed our game plan and our coaches focused on how to negate the Springboks’ primary strengths - kicking and set-piece play. We had to be smart in order to nullify their high ball and line-out dominance. In training, we practiced high balls and when we kicked, we made sure that it was deep kicks which made their big boys run around. At Eden Park in 2010, we took all the Springboks’ strengths away and my job was chasing kicks and applying pressure. We also increased the ball-in-play time and knew that they would fatigue in the final quarter. We broke down small details to take their strengths away, won the Test match 32-12 and never lost to them in the 2010 Tri-Nations. (Rokocoko won nine of 15 fixtures against the Springboks and dotted down nine times).
Sport24 asked: A decade later, what was your take on their World Cup success?
Joe Rokocoko: A few months before the World Cup, everyone was talking about New Zealand, England and Ireland as the favourites but no one actually spoke about the Springboks. Their win in Wellington made a big impact for me but most people were still looking at all the other teams. Leading up to Japan, I felt that the Springboks were sleeping giants. They had slipped under the radar and had just concentrated on training and nailing down their team. Rassie Erasmus has been the glue in their side. He showed in other teams he has coached that he boasts the ability to bring players together. He gelled the Springboks together and made them believe in themselves. You could see that they were playing for a purpose. I still remember he coached the Stormers one year when us as the Blues played them at Eden Park and they killed us. “We were like, what is this team?” He was all for the players and somebody they wanted to play for as they enjoyed training. You can tell he is a special coach because of what he had done with previous teams. For him to take over the Springboks was on another level. I always knew the Springboks would reach the play-offs but the question was would they last for the whole World Cup? They ultimately showed that they had the intensity and physicality to go all the way. The Springboks’ game plan was on point as they knew when to kick and when to run. The Boks have players now who are very mobile and they have the skill-set of offloading and keeping the ball alive. It’s hard enough trying to tackle a big guy but when he smashes you and offloads to another big guy, it carries some serious momentum. When the All Blacks lost their semi-final against England, I was rooting for the Springboks to win the World Cup.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi?
Joe Rokocoko: In top-level rugby, Kolbe would be right up there as the best winger owing to his all-round game. He is so safe under the high ball, is full of confidence and creates something out of nothing. He is a small guy that packs a serious punch and his main attribute is his ability to beat opponents in one-on-one situations. It was players like him who I used to hate marking during my career. I much preferred a massive guy like Jonah Lomu, who would run over the top of you rather than a player who had twinkle toes. Kolbe’s try in the World Cup final was special and as an opponent those are moments when you just have to stand up and applaud. Pre-lockdown, I saw his game against Racing 92 where Toulouse put him at flyhalf, and he can also operate at fullback. At fullback, he has more of a license to counter-attack and can pick off the forwards coming through the line. At the moment, the roles of fullbacks and wingers are pretty similar and I wouldn’t really care where Kolbe is on the pitch as long as he’s playing. He is a threat everywhere. Off the field, Kolbe is a very humble person and you can tell that he is not faking it. In terms of Mapimpi, he has accelerated his game in the last two or so years. He is explosive on attack and, while most wingers aren’t known for their defence, he is a solid bloke that just cuts guys to pieces. He has also become a good reader of when to come off his line and when to hold off. He is still fresh on the international front and with confidence he is only going to grow in the Springbok jersey. Bryan Habana is a good guy both players can model their game on because he was consistent throughout his whole career.
Sport24 asked: How excited have you been by Super Rugby Aotearoa?
Joe Rokocoko: I have made sure to set my alarm (owing to the time difference in France) and it’s been a while since I have been so excited to watch live games. Pre-lockdown, I used to hold off and wait for the highlights because there was too much rugby but now Aotearoa is exciting. It's a short window with local derbies because of Covid-19. It doesn’t get more intense than 10 weeks of New Zealand derbies. It’s hard enough playing against each other in a normal season of Super Rugby but Aotearoa will be even more intense. The games between the Kiwi sides are so fast and physical and you can get the best out of the players because travel isn’t factored into the equation at the moment. There may be a few cobwebs in the first two weeks but leading on from it, we will get to see the freshness from the players week-in and week-out and witness some interesting games. In terms of who I will support in the competition, it will always be the Blues but it’s so hard to put a finger on who is going to win the domestic tournament because all five franchises are good teams.
Sport24 asked: Your opinion on Dan Carter signing as injury cover for the Blues?
Joe Rokocoko: When I heard the rumours that he may be signing for the Blues I had to make sure that it wasn’t April Fool's Day. When the news was confirmed, I felt happy and weird at the same time. If you are a real die-hard Blues or Crusaders fan or former player, his move to Auckland was just a no-no. I saw him putting on his Blues training kit for the first time and I was laughing to myself because he looked so uncomfortable. He used to dominate in that red jumper so it looked wrong for him to be in blue. But it just shows the person that he is. He has put all that aside and sees the bigger picture at the Blues by developing and mentoring the younger players. He is also helping out a mate in Leon MacDonald, who asked for a favour. Dezzy has earned the merit as a world-class athlete. I thought I knew him as a player but after watching his documentary - A perfect 10 - it was good to see another side to him. He will for sure go down as the All Blacks’ best No 10 and to still be doing it at 38 is amazing. Sometimes his body hasn’t been able to keep up (due to a raft of injuries) but what makes Dezzy special is that his spirit is so strong. He has broken free from the mental burden of overcoming injuries and has a big drive and will to succeed. I was lucky enough to have played alongside and against him. There is no doubt he is world-class and will go down as one of our greats.
Sport24 asked: Three dream dinner guests. Who would they be and why?
Joe Rokocoko: From a sporting perspective, I would invite Michael Jordan. I have been following The Last Dance documentary on Netflix and it was awesome to see what made him tick as a professional athlete. I would also love to have had Lucky Dube over for a meal. I'm a big Reggae fan and I was shattered when I found out about his passing. I had always wanted to attend one of his concerts and was so gutted because I wasn’t able to. My third guest could be a younger version of Denzel Washington, who I could talk to about playing me if a film was made on the story of my life.