In Depth

Semesa Rokoduguni: from battlefield to world stage

Having cut his teeth on patrol in Afghanistan, Semesa Rokoduguni now faces a new challenge – scoring against the All Blacks

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Eight years ago Semesa Rokoduguni was a teenager living in a small village in Fiji. Tomorrow the 27-year-old wins his first cap for England against New Zealand at Twickenham.

The All Blacks are the world champions, a side who since winning the trophy three years ago have lost just two of their 39 matches (against England in 2012 and to South Africa last month). Few would dispute that the All Blacks are the greatest team of the moment in any sport.

Rokoduguni's task will be to score tries against them.

It should be a daunting challenge but Rokoduguni – who qualifies to play for England through the three-year residency rule – won't be fazed.

He's not your average cosseted international sports star, all fancy cars and celebrity lifestyle. Rokoduguni is a lance-corporal in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He knows that sport is just, well, sport, entertainment, an enjoyable way of making a living.  

The 16½ stone Rokoduguni does indeed make a living from rugby, playing for Bath since having been spotted scoring tries for the army seven-a-side team, but he's a serving soldier first and foremost, and a man whose military experiences have shaped his outlook on life.

In his first week in Afghanistan in 2007 one of his patrol had his legs blown off by a mine. "So when I came back from Afghanistan I had a different view of life," explained Rokoduguni to the [1] BBC. "Make the best use of every chance you have, because that chance might only come round the once."

Tomorrow's encounter at Twickenham will be the biggest challenge of Rokoduguni's career – and the chance to stake a claim for a place in England's squad for next year's World Cup – but he's approaching the match with his customary phlegm. "When you're out on the rugby field and you get something wrong, miss a tackle, miss a chance to score, you can always come back and get it right the next time," he says. "But out in Afghanistan, you can't afford to make mistakes, because a mistake might mean somebody loses their life."

England will need fourteen other heads as cool as Rokoduguni's when they run out against the All Blacks, a side who whitewashed them three Tests to nil during the summer tour to New Zealand. Playing the world champions is always a huge challenge for the English but particularly this month with their squad ravaged by injuries.

Six of the starting XV who appeared in England's stunning 38-21 victory in 2012 are sidelined – including centre Manu Tuilagi – so coach Stuart Lancaster finds his resources stretched. The uncapped duo of George Kruis and Anthony Watson are on the bench while centre Kyle Eastmond and wing Jonny May muster just 11 caps between them.

In contrast New Zealand are led by Richie McCaw, winning a record 135th cap, while they also field Kieran Read at No8 – voted the world Player of the Year in 2013 – and in the centre there's a return for Sonny Bill Williams. The 6ft 4in and 17 stone Williams was a member of the All Blacks' World Cup-winning side of 2011 but since then has spent two seasons playing rugby league while also finding time to win the New Zealand Heavyweight boxing championship title.

Williams encapsulates this All Black side: power, pace and a sublime set of skills. England will need to be at their very best if they're not, in boxing parlance, to be knocked out of the ring.

"It's about everyone doing their job to the best of their ability, in every single moment," said Chris Robshaw when the England captain was asked how to defeat New Zealand. "You cannot switch off, because they are probably the most clinical side in world rugby and they tend to take their chances."

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