Chandler Cunningham-South: I’ve lost my Kiwi accent – and now I know who Richard Hill is too

England's Chandler Cunningham-South during training

After each game Chandler Cunningham-South receives a message over WhatsApp from his father back on the farm in New Zealand, reviewing the new England back-row’s performance. They are not short. “It is like a script actually, and you have got to click ‘read more’,” he laughs. “I don’t get a rating, it would be harsh so I don’t want to see it. It is good, all motivation and it is helpful.”

There are rapid rises and then there are players like Cunningham-South, launched like a rocket into Test rugby. Having swapped Sidcup for New Zealand at the age of four he returned to these shores as a teenager, after Canterbury could not find a spot for him in their academy. Now Cunningham-South is an England international at the age of 20 and the youngest player in Steve Borthwick’s squad.

It is not hard to see why Borthwick and England like him; hitting every ruck, carry and tackle with a big frame and maximum intent. Had he ended up joining Canterbury’s setup there is every chance he would have been lost to English rugby forever. Eager to get into a professional academy environment despite enjoying life at Lincoln University outside of Christchurch, a highlights package was put together and dispatched with London Irish taking interest. Given the Exiles’ superb record for developing young players under Declan Kidney, Les Kiss and Jonathan Fisher before their sad demise last year, what better environment for a raw but talented prospect to learn the ropes.

Chandler Cunningham-Smith during a training session at Twickenham
Back-row is highly-rated by Steve Borthwick and those within the England coaching setup - Dan Mullan/Getty Images

“All of them were very good men and helped me a lot,” says Cunningham-South. “They developed me a lot, especially the professional side of it, and even as a person. I was only 18 so it wasn’t just coaching they were having to do, they almost had to be helping me out on a personal level as well, making sure I was OK, which was nice, always checking on me and that I was enjoying myself.”

An early sign that Cunningham-South might be a bit special was that he made his debut for England’s Under-20s before he had played a game for the club. The family remain back home in Wellsford, nearly 50 miles north of Auckland, surrounded by cattle. “It is off the grid, not much service round there,” adds Cunningham-South, which makes it sound like quite the contrast to running out in front of over 80,000 at Twickenham. “Maybe when I am older I will be more into that sort of thing but I am more of a city boy now,” he admits with a smile.

His mother will be the latest family member to head over before England’s game against Ireland next weekend. Without the support network at London Irish and now Harlequins that move across the world would have been incredibly daunting for a teenager, yet when you hear Cunningham-South discuss how he handled missing out on that place with Canterbury, there is a bucket load of mental strength. “I had the self-belief that I should be in a professional environment. Once one of [the academies] was willing to give me an opportunity, I would work hard there and make the right steps to play in the professional game.”

Two things have helped Cunningham-South make Twickenham his home away from home. First is the fading of his accent. “It’s gone now, he says. “When I first came over here I had a full Kiwi accent and I’ve lost it while being over here. When I am on the phone to my mates it sometimes comes out.” The second has been his steep learning curve of English rugby history, and rather comically, learning the real identity of his new mentor: the 2003 Rugby World Cup winner Richard Hill.

“I went back to [Irish] and said there is this guy who keeps talking to me and giving me this feedback and stuff to work on and really sounds like he knows what is going on, and I couldn’t quite remember his name,” Cunningham-South says of his first experiences with the England Under-20s.

“Then I later found out from the guys at Irish that it was Richard Hill and he let me know a couple of sessions later that he did win the World Cup, and he does know a bit about rugby!”

‘Twickenham is a really cool place to play’

Hill has not been showing off his medal or making Cunningham-South sit down for a compulsory viewing of England’s 2003 triumph, but having a mentor of that quality on hand seems invaluable. Not that anything could really prepare Cunningham-South for running out at Twickenham for the first time. “It’s awesome to play there. You don’t actually realise how big the stadium is until you are on the field looking up. It seems to not stop. So loud, so passionate, it’s a really cool place to play.”

Coming into the England camp has no doubt accelerated his development, noting that his ability “to take on knowledge” with line-out plays has sped up.

A first Test start does not feel too far away either given how well Cunningham-South has done so far off the bench. Astonishing, really, given he joined London Irish’s academy a little over two years ago.

“I haven’t had a chance to stop and reflect and have to keep looking forward to what’s next. I don’t like to look back and dwell on things. Lots of good things have happened and bad things but they have all happened for the right reasons, I guess. I am doing well and I’m happy and grateful for that.” He is right. Why press pause and take stock when for Cunningham-South everything keeps trending upwards.

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