‘Right place at right time’: Cunningham-South happy with England switch

<span>Chandler Cunningham-South: ‘I was going to make sure everyone knew that I can work hard.’</span><span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Chandler Cunningham-South: ‘I was going to make sure everyone knew that I can work hard.’Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Three years ago, when he was turning out for Lincoln University second XV in Christchurch, the prospect of Chandler Cunningham-South representing England against the All Blacks on this tour was a distant dream in every sense. “It was weird,” admits the 21-year-old back-rower, reflecting on how he felt just before his first game back on Kiwi soil in a white shirt. “It is quite a big U-turn, I guess.”

He can say that again. Born in Sidcup, he moved with his family to New Zealand at the age of four but never cracked the required code in his adopted rugby land. His decision to head back to the UK in early 2022, however, has proved a spectacular success, so much so that the All Blacks must already be privately rueing the one who got away.

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Occasionally, though, a bit of serendipity is involved. Some video highlights of him representing Canterbury U19s caught the eye of London Irish’s talent spotters and, after a couple of games for Esher, he was soon impressing for England U20s and London Irish. Then, when Irish folded financially, his switch to Harlequins also worked out well. And now here he is, an automatic starter for England back where it all began for him rugby-wise.

Not that Cunningham-South has ever previously been to Eden Park or watched a game there. His family have a smallholding in Wellsford, around 75km north of Auckland, where they rear a few beef cattle, and he attended Westlake Boys High School over the bridge in Takapuna but these days he only hankers after one aspect of his old Kiwi life. “The KFC is better over here. Just go and taste it, mate. The chips are better, the wings are better. I am waiting until after the game and then I will be able to treat myself.”

Culinary preferences aside, there can be no question that switching hemispheres has released the latent talent lurking inside his sizeable frame. English rugby is not blessed with thousands of big, hard-nosed ball carriers with power, pace and genuine dynamism and they owe a pint or three to London Irish’s ex-forwards and academy coach Jonathan Fisher for spotting an unpolished diamond.

Cunningham-South, though, has subsequently had to do all the hard yards himself. “I think I always wanted to do more than I was doing,” he reflects, sitting in the basement of England’s hilltop hotel. “I just wanted to be given the opportunity to get in the system somewhere and work hard. Hopefully something would come at the end of it, which it has.

“When I made the decision to leave [for the UK] I thought: ‘I have to do something with this. I can’t just go there and chill out.’ It was a long way from my mum and dad so I had to make sure it was worth it. Obviously, I didn’t get the opportunity here in New Zealand so I was going to go and make sure everyone knew that I can work hard and get to where I want to be.”

In that respect, he is an ideal poster boy for every other overlooked talent still awaiting their shot at the big time.”‘I think if you’ve got the right people around you then lots of players can get there, for sure. When I went over I think it was the right place for me at the right time. If it had been a year earlier, probably not. At that time, though, I felt like it was.”

And having stood in front of the haka – “I felt proud out there” – in Dunedin and taken the game to New Zealand’s highly-rated back row, his next priority is to help England become the first visiting team to win a Test against New Zealand at Eden Park since 1994. “I know there’s a lot of history and what it means to their team. But I suppose it’s also an opportunity for us. I’m excited and I think all the boys are.’ Last week the breakdown was pretty aggressive. We knew it was coming, it’s just being prepared.”

Now he has a chance to deliver another reminder to New Zealand of the talent that slipped through their fingers. “I guess everything happens for a reason. I am happy with the decisions I made and I’m happy with where I’ve got to. I just need to keep going.”