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Chandler Cunningham-South: I had to make sure leaving New Zealand was worth it

Chandler Cunningham-South in England training before the second Test against New Zealand

Chandler Cunningham-South is not one of life’s planners. When he played his last game in New Zealand for Lincoln University three years ago, the idea of facing the haka in an England shirt was not written down on some grand list of goals.

Since touching down in New Zealand, the Harlequins back-rower has yet made arrangements to visit his parents who live on a small farm in Wellsford, just north of Auckland. In fact Cunningham-South has just one thing on his, literal, bucket list about returning to New Zealand where he grew up as a child.

“The KFC is better over here,” Cunningham-South said. “Just go and taste it mate. The chips are better, the wings are better. I haven’t any yet, I am waiting till Sunday after the game and I will be able to treat myself to one of those.”

First, there is the small matter of the second Test at Eden Park where England get another shot to register their first win over the All Blacks on New Zealand soil in 21 years. Judging by the blank expressions on the All Blacks’ faces last week when asked about Cunningham-South last week, not many knew who the 21-year-old was before the first Test. They certainly did afterwards. “Chandler is just such a heavy body and he carries the ball incredibly well,” Scott Robertson, the New Zealand coach, said afterwards.

The inquest into the ‘one that got away’ is unlikely to be launched any time soon such is the extraordinary depth of talent in New Zealand. Cunningham-South acknowledges the outsized role circumstance has played in his ascent as London Irish forwards coach Jonathan Fisher spotted the highlights reel he had sent around the world. A couple of phone calls later and Cunningham-South, who had been passed over by the Crusaders academy, was on a plane to England.

“I think I always wanted to do more than what I was doing,” Cunningham-South said. “I just wanted to be given the opportunity to get in the system somewhere and work hard. Hopefully something will come at the end of it, which it has and so that’s good. I am just grateful that I got the opportunity.

“You’ve got to be in the right place and when I went over, I think that was the right place for me at the right time. Maybe if it had been a year earlier, probably not, but at that time I felt like it was. When I made the decision to leave, I thought, ‘I have to do something with this; I can’t just go there and chill out, you’ve got a job to do’, because it was a long way from my mum and dad, so I had to make sure it was worth it.”

Chandler Cunningham-South in action for England against New Zealand
Cunningham-South carries the ball forward in the first Test against New Zealand in Dunedin - Getty Images/Joe Allison

Cunningham-South’s chilled out demeanour is reminiscent of Courtney Lawes, the man who wore the England No 6 shirt with such distinction until his international retirement following the 2023 World Cup. He is now learning the challenging art of lineout jumping, like Lawes mastered, under tutelage from Maro Itoje and Steve Borthwick.

“It’s my first season properly jumping in the lineout,” Cunningham-South said. “It’s tough to learn all the calls. You’ve got to prep for the team you’re playing against and what they’re going to do. You have a different menu every week so you have to learn fast. There’s a lot of stuff going on. It is crazy, you have got to be quite coordinated with your feet and then be explosive off the ground.”

Cunningham-South was born in Sidcup before his parents moved to New Zealand when he was four, his dad now runs a small farm while his mum is a nurse. Going to school at Hamilton Boys and Westlake Boys, Cunningham-South learned how to perform those schools’ hakas so was fizzing with excitement to be standing across from the All Blacks kapa o pango at the Forsyth Barr Stadium last Saturday.

“I was thinking ‘let’s go. let’s go’,” Cunningham-South said. “You do Hakas in school, so I got to see a few of them. It was just more like ‘let’s go’ – it got me excited to play. It was good. The day before I was thinking that the last time I played a game in New Zealand I think I was playing for Lincoln University second XV about three years ago. So yeah things change a lot and now I am playing against the All Blacks. It is quite a big U turn I guess. It’s cool.”