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When Alex Dombrandt snaffled a Bristol pass under the floodlights in the second half of Harlequins’ mind-blowing Premiership comeback against the Bears 10 days ago, such was the magnificence of his timing and the splendour of his precision that all those in attendance at the Stoop were compelled into a united gasp.
Dombrandt’s one-handed juggle, which led to his side’s eighth try and sent the Harlequins carnival into overdrive, might have blindsided the circus-goers in attendance, but there was a small nook of south London to whom the No 8’s interception came as no surprise.
“One of Alex’s old coaches said he always had this ability to read an interception - which is quite interesting because when he did it against Bristol, he used to do that, somehow, in Year 7 over and over again,” Tom Street, director of wider participation and healthy living - and head of rugby - at Dombrandt’s alma mater, The John Fisher School, tells Telegraph Sport.
“I coached him at under-16s and he could do things that other players couldn’t. He really kicked on in Sixth Form - that’s when his rugby really started to excel.
“Before that, he wasn’t a stand-out player by any means. He was quite a slow, chunky young lad… early on he was a little bit mouthy, too. Not rude, but a little bit chatty.”
Although the 24-year-old’s spot in Eddie Jones’s England squad for the autumn internationals owes very little to his penchant for an interception - his offering on a rugby field far supersedes the one-off rarity of an intercept - it is emblematic of his astute rugby mind.
Even when Dombrandt was coming through the ranks at The John Fisher School - he left in 2015 after attending from years 7 to 13 - he was not always the first name on the team sheet. But his talent, skilfulness and intuition were unquestionable.
'His hand-eye coordination was amazing'
“Everything that you saw against Bristol, I remember him doing that at 12 years old,” Matthew Gold, the school's former head of rugby and now director of rugby at Abingdon School, says. “He was able to do that. He could pick the ball up off his toes; he could intercept; he could hit a line and time it - and I don’t know how he would do it.
“In year 7, when he started, he was somebody who had great hand-eye coordination skills and an awareness of space. And he loved ball-carrying - he would put himself in positions to try and get an interception or try and get on the ball - whether that was at first-receiver or elsewhere.
“Sport-wise, talent-wise… he was an exceptional cricketer. His hand-eye coordination was amazing. In cricket, he scored a century at 12 years old.
“At under-16s, we were short once and he played fly-half. He also threw into the lineout on occasion. Even in the seniors we once needed someone to throw in - and he did it. He would be someone who could rotate through the positions.”
Street adds: “When he left John Fisher, you knew there was something special there, but I don’t think anyone would have foreseen him going on to the places that he has.
“If you were to ask some of his team-mates at school, who are now playing in either the Championship or National League One, if they had expected Alex to be the one from their team that went on to the highest level, they probably would have said: ‘Not really.’”
It was in Dombrandt’s final year at John Fisher where he truly came into his own. Before moving on to university at Cardiff Metropolitan, Dombrandt the late bloomer had never had any contact with any academy or representational XVs teams, but in just three years he went from school first XV level to starring in the Welsh capital, and an eye-watering YouTube highlights reel led to a contract with current Premiership champions, Harlequins.
Earlier this year, too, Dombrandt made his long-awaited England debut in the 70-14 thumping of Canada at Twickenham. As well as a God-given gift for rugby’s more subtle aspects, the secret to his rise through the ranks, unsurprisingly, was hard graft.
“When Alex came to us, he wasn’t sure whether he was going to play cricket or rugby,” Daniel Milton, director of rugby at Cardiff Metropolitan University, tells Telegraph Sport. “He was hoping to do both, but when you’re in one of the high-performance programmes here it becomes quite challenging.
“His handling was something that stood out a mile - but he was very, very unfit. He was always in and around the first-team environment but he flitted in and out of games because of his fitness. He could run great lines and had great natural intuition and game understanding - you could always see that from the start.
“It was the other things, becoming a bit more professional in his approach, working on his diet - those sort of things - that he started to do while he was with us, and then continued in the great environment at Harlequins.”
Gold adds: “The amazing thing is how hard working he is, and how he never gives up. He never gave up at school. And he is so humble - which came from his parents, his friends, and the school.
“And he chose to do it. Another thing with it is that he chose to make rugby something that he wanted to do. He wanted to buy into the strength and conditioning at school - and become better at 16 to 18 years old. That then enabled him to go to Cardiff Met and transfer fairly easily into that - despite it being quite a jump up.
“In his final year at John Fisher he was taking strength and conditioning very seriously - and he was 120kg by that point. He wasn’t conditioned to the levels of Cardiff Met or Harlequins, of course, but he was a big man.
“That season, we got to the final of the Rosslyn Park Sevens, in a really strong team… because of the aspiration of that team and the belief that he could do something with his rugby meant that, when he went to university he thought: ‘If I get an opportunity, I’m really going to take it.’”
The one criticism that the sceptics of Dombrandt’s Harlem Globetrotting No 8 play have always been able to regurgitate is his work off the ball. These are concerns that were always peddled by his youth coaches, too, but they all now insist that there has been a marked shift in that facet.
“The area of the game that he’s worked really hard on is his defence,” Gold says. “He would openly say, particularly at school, that it wasn’t a strength.”
'Alex is as grounded as he could be'
Milton adds: “There was always a question mark over Alex’s work-rate and the defensive side of things, but performances like [the one against Bristol] answer those questions. If he can start backing that up, I don’t see how you can’t pick him [for England].
“Our forwards coach said, undoubtedly, despite all the good players that have come through our programme, that he was the best player he’d coached in terms of his natural ability. Our biggest question was always: could he do the things he did with us at the next level? The way he runs lines and his offloading ability, all the bits and pieces that we saw, you always wondered whether it would transfer with the step up in physicality. And it is.
“When Alex feels that you believe in him, that’s when you see the best of him. So, I suppose, that’s the question, isn’t it? Does Eddie Jones really believe in him?”
The trait echoed by all three of Dombrandt’s erstwhile coaches, however, without any invitation, is his humility - “he’s just a good bloke,” says Milton.
Andrew Dean, assistant headmaster at John Fisher, recalls how Dombrandt came to watch the school’s under-15s side in the quarter-final of the national cup just before the pandemic. “It was sheeting rain,” he says, “but he still came”.
“He has not changed,” Street adds. “He has every excuse to get caught up in the hype but he is as grounded as he could be. Whenever we ask him to come in and help, he does. He knows where his home is, if you like, and he’s always willing to come back.”
Gold also recalls how Dombrandt, in the summer before starting his final year at The John Fisher School, took two weeks out of his school holidays along with some of his team-mates to refurbish the gym at the school. They all signed it, and Dombrandt’s signature remains etched into the walls of the gym to this day.
He might be signing those hallowed walls at Twickenham before long.