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'It’s not meant to be easy': England's new flanker left New Zealand after career roadblock

By PA
Chandler Cunningham-South celebrates with Joe Marler (Photo by Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Chandler Cunningham-South is relishing every minute of the Six Nations maelstrom as he prepares to play a part in England’s daunting clash with back-to-back Grand Slam chasers Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday.

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Cunningham-South’s gamble in leaving New Zealand, where he had lived since the age of four, to return to the UK two years ago has paid off handsomely with his ascendancy to the full England squad for the first time this year.

His debut off the bench in the opening win over Italy, and subsequent appearances against both Wales and Scotland, have appeared to make the Harlequins flanker an integral part of head coach Steve Borthwick’s long-term plans.

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“It has been a really big step up for me and I think I have done all right,” said Cunningham-South. “I think I am the youngest in the squad and I have been taken under a few people’s wings.

“I like it. Especially when we were up in Edinburgh getting off the bus – all the heckling and yelling. That sort of stuff motivates me and gives me an extra bit of energy.

“Twickenham is awesome to play at. You don’t actually realise how big the stadium is until you are on the field looking up. It seems to not stop. It was awesome – so loud, so passionate, a real cool place to play.”

Cunningham-South, who was born in Sidcup, decided to head back over to England to pursue his rugby career after finding his opportunities limited in New Zealand.

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But he admits he had big moments of doubt after arriving in the midst of the Covid pandemic and finding himself struck down with the illness more or less immediately.

“I got the opportunity over in England and it all happened pretty quickly,” he added. “It was a weird time because I was stuck inside for 18 days with Covid and I was like, ‘Did I make the right decision?’ But once I had got rid of the Covid and got into training I knew I had done.

“I suppose it’s not meant to be easy. Moving over at that age I was a little homesick at first, but when you are working hard and having fun with new friends it gets pushed to the back of your head and I have been loving every minute of it.”

Cunningham-South initially joined the London Irish academy in 2022, representing England in the under-20 Six Nations in the same year, before moving on to Harlequins when Irish folded due to financial issues.

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His swift ascent up the England ranks was confirmed when he came off the bench in the narrow opening win over Italy and Cunningham-South believes he is beginning to reap the benefits of his big career decision.

“I needed to develop a lot and that’s why I wanted to be a part of an academy set-up,” he added.

“And there was a definite mindset switch – what it takes to be a professional is very different to when you are playing uni rugby. I didn’t realise how much detail goes into the professional game. It was a bit of a shock, but it’s been good.”

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Poorfour 4 hours ago
The AI advantage: How the next two Rugby World Cups will be won

AI models are really just larger and less transparent variants of the statistical models that have been in use since Moneyball was invented. And a big difference between the Icahn centre’s results and AI today is that ChatGPT-like Large Language Models can explain (to some degree) how they reached their conclusions. In terms of what impact they will have, I suspect it will have two primary impacts: 1) It will place a premium on coaching creativity 2) It will lead to more selections that baffle fans and pundits. Analysts will be able to run the models both ways: they will see their own team’s and players’ weaknesses and strengths as well as the opposition’s. So they will have a good idea at what the other team will be targeting and the decisive difference may well be which coaches are smart enough to think of a gameplan that the other side didn’t identify and prepare for. For players, it places a premium on three key things: 1) Having a relatively complete game with no major weaknesses (or the dedication to work on eliminating them) 2) Having the tactical flexibility to play a different game every week 3) Having a point of difference that is so compelling that there isn’t a defence for it. (3) is relatively rare even among pro players. There have been only a handful of players over the years where you knew what they were going to do and the problem was stopping it - Lomu would be the classic example. And even when someone does have that, it’s hard to sustain. Billy Vunipola in his prime was very hard to stop, but fell away quite badly when the toll on his body began to accumulate. So coaches will look for (1) - a lack of exploitable weaknesses - and (2) - the ability to exploit others’ weaknesses - ahead of hoping for (3), at least for the majority of the pack. Which is likely to mean that, as with the original Moneyball, competent, unshowy players who do the stuff that wins matches will win out over outrageous talents who can’t adapt to cover their own weaknesses. Which will leave a lot of people on the sidelines sputtering over the non-inclusion of players whose highlights reels are spectacular, but whose lowlight reels have been uncovered by AI… at least until the point where every fan has access to a sporting analysis AI.

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