‘The other boys did not want to train against him’: The making of Chandler Cunningham-South

Chandler Cunningham-South training with England
Chandler Cunningham-South is on a remarkably steep trajectory - Reuters/Lee Smith

This weekend, as he runs out under the roof at Forsyth Barr Stadium to take on the All Blacks, Chandler Cunningham-South will complete a poignant loop in his young career.

Just 21 years old, the rambunctious blindside flanker is on a remarkably steep trajectory. Having grown up in New Zealand, where his parents emigrated four years after he was born in Sidcup, Cunningham-South spent his teens representing Westlake Boys’ High School to the north of Auckland.

Well, the “bulky kid” wanted to play more than he was allowed.

“He did have a little bit of a reputation,” remembers Hugh McGahan, an icon of New Zealand’s rugby league team who has been Westlake’s rugby director for a decade.

“I don’t like being dishonest, even if sometimes I don’t like being too honest, either. The coaches loved Chandler, but his attendance at school and some of his behaviours weren’t great. The manager at the time, Mr Young, and myself, we were always onto the coaches: ‘He’s been doing this, this and this, making no effort in class.’

“Part of our rule here is that, if you want to play sport here, you have to have other things in place. You don’t have to be top of the class, but you have to be putting in some effort. And he wasn’t. We were fighting with coaches week-in, week-out: ‘You’ve got to stand him down.’

“He was such a talent but he was wasting it and we had to stick to what we wanted to get the message across to everyone. We can laugh about it now. When his name comes up, there are some eye-rolls and smiles and laughs.”

Former Rugby League player Hugh McGahan
Hugh McGahan was the director of rugby who tried to tame Cunningham-South - Getty Images/Phil Walter

McGahan concedes that Cunningham-South probably “didn’t like me all that much, because I was strict”. He does, however, paint the picture of a charismatic, unmistakable figure. Cunningham-South was the first Westlake pupil permitted to wear his hair in dreadlocks and was rarely without a beaming grin.

Despite occasionally hanging around with peers who were “on the shady side”, he was a galvanising presence. On the pitch, Cunningham-South gradually learnt to use his assets.

“I’ve got to be honest, he didn’t like to shift bodies too much early on,” McGahan continues. “He was always in and around the ball and liked to go carry, but our coach at the time, Mark Manihera, he basically said, ‘I don’t need you to do that. I need you to shift bodies, to clear bodies and clear the ruck area’. Chandler took that on board and became an exceptional player in that area.

“In general, he was a powerful kid and a lot of the boys didn’t want to train against him… even when we had shields and the pads on. Chandler enjoyed it in the end, because he knew he was doing some damage.”

‘He would sneak off to play rugby league’

Rugby union is a small world and there was a Westlake alumnus on each team in Tokyo a fortnight ago. Tiennan Costley, who started at openside flanker for the hosts, was a contemporary who attempted to keep Cunningham-South on the straight and narrow.

Rugby league was another distraction.

“Rugby league was played on a Wednesday and rugby [union] was played on Saturday,” says McGahan. “Sometimes he would try to sneak off and get out of class to try to go to the rugby league games. A couple of times, I think, we caught him hopping onto the bus to go to the rugby league games. It was: ‘Come back here, get back into class’.”

Cunningham-South had been at Hamilton Boys’ High School prior to Westlake and went on to join Lincoln University on a sports scholarship. There, he mainly played for the second string, known as the premier reserves, against local Christchurch clubs. Because of Covid, crowds were capped at about 100.

Chandler Cunningham-South
Cunningham-South, pictured during his time at Lincoln University, where he was not necessarily a first-XV player

An employee of Lincoln University for 30 years, Peter Magson has witnessed some special talents. Scott Barrett, the recently appointed All Blacks skipper, attended the establishment. Finn Russell passed through, too. The most gifted individual Magson encountered was Jordie Barrett. But he certainly rated Cunningham-South.

“If you had a bit of broken play off the ruck, he was decisive,” says Magson, now manager of Lincoln’s sports scholarship programme. “I remember him having a bit of speed with those long, loping, giraffe-like legs. He was probably the tallest player in our club at the time, even though he was only 18. Everyone knew he had quite a high ceiling and he’s achieved some of that potential already.”

‘We have to get this bloke here, now’

After a year at Lincoln, and a few games for Canterbury Under-19, Cunningham-South sent off a highlights reel that landed in Sunbury, among other places around the world. Jonathan Fisher, then forwards coach at London Irish with close ties to the academy, was gobsmacked.

“Blimey, mate,” sighs Fisher. “I believe it was of him playing for Canterbury Under-19. Obviously I didn’t watch it for too long, but he was playing in red and black stripes. It was the manner in which he was carrying the ball; the ferocity and the dynamism, the ability to get into small spaces by, basically, moving people in front of him out the way.

“I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. I couldn’t understand how this person was going to be able to get on an aeroplane and leave New Zealand. I remember watching three or four carries and sprinting into Declan Kidney’s office, with Les Kiss in there as well, and saying: ‘We have to get this bloke here, now.’ It was almost one of those situations that is too good to be true.

“When he arrived, the first session we had was a non-23 session on a Saturday morning before a Premiership game in the afternoon. People throw the word ‘raw’ around quite often, but he could not be more of a personification of that term. He didn’t really understand how to train. The core basics of his game were pretty loose. But he had a big old smile and a desire to get the ball and make something happen.”

The rest is history, and a rapid rise worthy of a movie script. Cunningham-South joined Irish in February 2022, had a few games for Esher and was quickly ensconced in the England age-grade system. The 2022-23 campaign under Kidney and Kiss was a huge success and Steve Borthwick fast-tracked Cunningham-South for the 2024 Six Nations, retaining him for this tour as a mark of the rough diamond’s immense promise.

Going up against Ardie Savea, the reigning world player of the year, and the rest of New Zealand’s back row will be an altogether different challenge. Cunningham-South will have his mother, Caroline, and more family and friends in attendance. Nobody expected the roguish schoolboy to rocket into the Test arena this quickly. Where he can take his game from here is anybody’s guess.