Why Alex Dombrandt has not been ready for England duty - until now

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Alex Dombrandt of Harlequins charges upfield during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Leicester Tigers and Harlequins at Welford Road on May 15, 2021 in Leicester, England.  - GETTY IMAGES
Alex Dombrandt of Harlequins charges upfield during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Leicester Tigers and Harlequins at Welford Road on May 15, 2021 in Leicester, England. - GETTY IMAGES

Alex Dombrandt has been a revelation ever since he joined Harlequins fresh out of university for the 2018/19 season. His ability to make line-breaks due to his size, speed and intelligent running lines instantly added a new dimension to Quins’ attack.

Over the course of three seasons of professional rugby, including the ongoing campaign, Dombrandt has collated an outstanding highlight reel. The No 8 scores and creates tries in abundance with his offloading game a particular asset.

If one was to watch his highlights alone, it would seem mystifying that Dombrandt has not earned international recognition. But on closer inspection, the reasons are, or rather were, apparent. While devastating with ball in hand, he had a tendency to let passages of the match drift him by, waiting for an opportunity to create some magic - a fine strategy for a winger, not so much for a back rower. Equally his defensive output was not especially consistent or dynamic, something that certainly could not be afforded at international level where no passengers can be tolerated. These two issues, to some extent, stemmed from Dombrandt’s fitness. It is no secret that Dombrandt was not in ideal shape for a professional athlete coming out of university. This has slowly been addressed and the former Cardiff Met player is now 10kg lighter than when he first joined Harlequins.

At one point in his career the above criticisms would have been legitimate. Dombrandt has diligently addressed these issues and the fruits are coming to bear this season.

Minutes played per match

As mentioned above, Dombrandt’s fitness, which was problematic, has improved dramatically. Two weeks ago against Wasps, as a frantic match headed towards its conclusion, Dombrandt’s improved energy levels shone through. Marcus Smith lifted a delicate chip over the top and it was the No 8 who led the chase, making an important tackle that led to a penalty and eventually ended up with his side winning the game. He would not have had the energy to make that vital intervention in season’s past.

During his first two seasons, Dombrandt often played for 50 to 55 minutes before being removed from the pitch. This is no longer the case. Having averaged 66 minutes per match in his first two seasons, Dombrandt is playing over 73 minutes per game, illustrating he is increasingly becoming an 80-minute man. A prerequisite if he wants to succeed at the next level where fitness becomes even more vital.

Dominant defence

Dombrandt’s defence has maintained a steady output throughout his professional career, averaging between 10 and 13 tackles per game. The difference now is that Dombrandt is making dominant impacts. Tackles on England rivals Lewis Ludlam and Sam Simmonds both spring to mind.

Dombrandt does not need to develop into an elite defender necessarily. England have Tom Curry, Sam Underhill and Mark Wilson for that. However, Dombrandt’s improvement in that area, when coupled with his attacking play makes him a more well-rounded option. He is no longer a player that just impacts the game in attack.

Consistent attacking output

Dombrandt's attacking game has always been his strength. Across three seasons, he has maintained a consistent level of carries, line breaks, offloads, metres made and tries scored. This is remarkable given how high a bar Dombrandt has set himself.

What is most notable is that Dombrandt is maintaining his output for longer periods of time on the pitch while also becoming more impactful in defence. His tendency to let passages of the game drift him by has gone and Dombrandt has started to take on a leadership role, captaining Quins on a number of occasions this season. The No 8 has begun to take games by the scruff of the neck much like another former Harlequins No 8 - and late developer - Nick Easter.

Alex Dombrant's stats.
Alex Dombrant's stats.

Lineout option

An area of Dombrandt’s game that has developed most starkly is his lineout jumping. The No 8 has gone from being a very occasional jumper to one of Harlequins’ primary targets this season, often jumping at the front of the lineout. In his first season with the club, Dombrandt was only used as a lineout option on average 0.2 times a game. That rose to 0.8 times a game last season before skyrocketing to 2.7 times a match this campaign.

This is a real bonus and adds another string to his bow, especially since neither Billy Vunipola or Sam Simmonds are especially strong lineout forwards. England's lineout has not functioned as well as it once did in recent times and adding another primary jumper into the mix could alleviate some of the problems.

Magic moments

The key to the developments in Dombrandt’s game is that they now augment what makes him truly special. Against Leicester last weekend, Dombrandt produced an outrageous basketball-style offload to help create a try. He also made a remarkable chip and chase collection to set his side away. The week before, he broke through the Wasps defence on multiple occasions, adding to his impressive try tally. In fact every week, Dombrandt seems to produce spectacular moments.

Dombrandt is still adding to his astounding highlight reel, but he now has the grunt work required of a back rower to back it up.

Harlequins' Alex Dombrandt scores their side's fifth try of the game during the Gallagher Premiership match at Twickenham Stoop, London.  - PA
Harlequins' Alex Dombrandt scores their side's fifth try of the game during the Gallagher Premiership match at Twickenham Stoop, London. - PA

England honours next?

Dombrandt represented England in a non-cap game against the Barbarians in 2019. He was man of the match on that day. However, Eddie Jones has recently ignored other out-and-out No 8’s, bar Billy Vunipola. This summer, Dombrandt is in prime position to win his first caps against the USA and Canada. Vunipola may well be rested, Simmonds will be with the Lions while in-form Zach Mercer is off to Montpellier which makes his selection unlikely.

While Simmonds has been the form No 8 in England this year, Dombrandt has had an excellent campaign too and is far more similar to the mould of Vunipola. They are similar in size and Dombrandt has the ability to make hard yards as well as adding a level of explosiveness that Vunipola is lacking at the moment. England have struggled to break down defences and make clean breaks when Manu Tuilagi is unavailable and Dombrandt is a player who does exactly that. Whether he can do it at the next level when defences are far more sturdy and games are tighter is the question. It is now time to find out.