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'It's a 27-hour flight, I wasn’t coming to mess around'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by World Rugby)

RugbyPass couldn’t have timed it better to hook up in person with Chandler Cunningham-South. It was June 6 when he was officially made redundant, the financial collapse of London Irish confirmed by the RFU suspending them from competing in any tournament next season.


Sixteen days later, though, this grave anxiety of suddenly being unemployed and making do with just 50 per cent payment last month of his academy wage has disappeared and the English-born, New Zealand-raised age-grade hotshot came bounding through the lobby of a downtown Cape Town hotel bearing a jackpot smile and an outstretched hand.

Ostensibly in South Africa to pack down with the England U20s, duty that resulted in a commendable effort in the opening round draw with Ireland in Paarl, sorting out his future was also on the agenda and this business got squared away earlier last Thursday when he was unveiled as a new Harlequins signing.

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Six hours after that reassuring news had broken, his enthusiastic words were like cuddles when he pulled up a restaurant chair to explain his relief that he now knows what he will be doing in 2023/24 once his latest age-grade international assignment is concluded.

Until he signed on the dotted line to make The Stoop his new home, Cunningham-South was in a quandary about what to do next. “Stressful,” he told RugbyPass, reflecting on the ordeal of recent weeks that has resulted in Irish’s fifth-place Gallagher Premiership squad scattering to the four winds.


“Obviously, I was in an academy house, and it was tough because we had to move our stuff out. It has been tough just organising what I am going to do with my life, I guess. I had to make a decision if I wanted to go home or if I wanted to stay in England and make this life my permanent home or go overseas somewhere. It was tough I had to make that decision. As well as the career, it was a life decision for me which was quite tough, but I feel like I have made the right decision.”

So why choose Harlequins? “Just the sort of way they play it is an exciting brand of rugby and I feel like I will fit into the style of rugby very well. The way they are, the poachers and stuff, it has sort of made me feel very comfortable and just excited for a new opportunity. I feel like the squad next year is looking very strong and big things can happen next year for that team and I want to be a part of that.”


It helped, of course, that his change in the club also meant a change in status. “It was an academy contract,” he explained regarding the deal he was on at London Irish. “Harlequins is a full contract, a senior contract, a full senior contract, so it’s exciting.”

Fair play, but what about the ordeal of saying his goodbyes to the club that had brought him back to England in February 2022, a month before his 19th birthday? “We felt it coming,” he admitted about the dreaded financial collapse. “With all the delays and stuff, everyone started preparing for the worst, but it was quite tough.

“We did meet up, went to the pub and we all saw each other which was nice. It was a very sad time. Like it’s a really good group of lads there and all the staff. Everyone was so nice and we were all in the same boat. Everyone has to look for a job now which is tough but hopefully everyone gets sorts, makes do and finds stuff.”

Securing new employment is completely the end of the uncertainty for Cunningham-South, however. He was homeless when he flew to South Africa last weekend with the England U20s and is hoping that his old housemate Will Joseph, who is also switching to Harlequins, will quickly strike it lucky on the house-hunting front.


“I didn’t actually have a locker because I was in the academy, so I didn’t have too much to clear out, I just had to take my boots,” he said about exit Irish for the final time. “But clearing out the academy house was quite sad because that had been my home away from home.

“It is comforting we are not moving too far now. I will be still around that area, but we are still house hunting. Me and Will are looking for a house; hopefully we will find one. Hopefully, he can find one while I am over here, otherwise I will be homeless,” he quipped.


Enough of the dramatic present for now, let’s turn the dial to Cunningham-South’s curious past and chart how New Zealand could one day rue letting the veritable ball of energy slip through their net. “I was born in England and then moved to New Zealand with my family when I was four, grew up there and then I came back for an opportunity with London Irish when I was 18,” he said.

“I lived in Auckland and then went to school in Hamilton and then moved back up to Auckland to go to Westlake Boys for my last two years. Then I went to uni at Lincoln University for a year and then after that, I came over.”

He dabbled in the local scene in New Zealand. North Harbour 18s, Canterbury U19s, and even a dalliance with some junior-level activity for the NRL Warriors, but he found it tricky to stand out and get noticed, a situation not helped by the lockdown pegging his chances of exposure.

“I was in school when the pandemic was on,” he recalled. “We weren’t in school for lots of it because the lockdown in New Zealand was crazy. We were in lockdown for a long time, with no sport, no nothing, no school for quite a long time, and when we came back it was a short season and then I had a couple of red cards in that season as well so I think I ended up playing just two games in my last year of high school, two or three games.

“It [the red cards] was tackle tech, but I have been good since I have been over here, no red cards so I am happy. I don’t think I have got any yellow cards either. Anyway, it probably wasn’t the best last year to have I guess in terms of trying to go further in New Zealand, which maybe hindered it as well.

“Possibly there could have been a chance but it would have meant waiting a bit longer than I would have wanted to wait. I wanted to be in a professional environment straightaway and I just went and did it, I guess (at London Irish). I don’t think that would have happened straightaway for me in New Zealand, it would have taken a bit more time. I think I would have got into a set-up but it just would have taken longer.

“My agent was just looking for something for me in a professional environment. I wanted to be in a professional environment and I didn’t really have the opportunity to do that in New Zealand and he looked elsewhere, looked in France, in England and we chose London Irish because I had the best connection with them.

“I spoke to (Declan) Kidney and Les (Kiss) on the Zoom call in December 2021. I spoke to a couple of other teams as well over in Europe and got a good vibe from them, but I thought London Irish could help me to get to where I wanted to be. I haven’t looked back, I guess.

“I didn’t know much about English rugby at all, but I am English and I was, ‘I may as well give it a crack’. I did a bit of research and saw that it was a very competitive league and I didn’t realise how big the scale was until I actually came over here and saw what it was like.

“I was watching one of the first games and I was this is actually quite crazy that I am involved in this. As soon as I watched the first game after coming over, I just wanted to play, I wanted to be in that, so it was just more motivation when I came over.”

There were three first-team selections shortly after his arrival in London as well as an immediate call-up for the England U20s, and his 2022/23 campaign saw his foot press on the accelerator – further age-grade international exposure allied with a vastly increased club workload featuring 22 appearances and that compelling clinching team try he rounded off just before Christmas versus Saracens.

“It was quite surprising,” he admitted about his fast-track first-team progress at such a young age. “But if you are going to make the trip over, it’s a 27-hour flight, I wasn’t coming to mess around or anything, I was coming to do something, to make a big change. I felt like it worked.”

There is way more to come, however. “I do have a lot to do in my game to get to where I want to be. I want to play international rugby. I want to play international rugby, for sure, and I want to do well for my club as well and I want to win Premierships, I want to win European titles. That is sort of my goal. I just want to participate, to really achieve stuff in my career.”

All the while there will be admiring glances from far away. “It was very hard for my mum to let me go to the other side of the world, but having my family support especially has made everything a lot easier. I’m on FaceTime and WhatsApp to them back home all the time.

“They are always there, always supporting, watching every game. Because of the time difference, it might be 3am but they will always be watching the game and just having that support and knowing that they are proud is a very big thing.

“My mum has flown over to come visit me and I’ve flown home and stuff. I went back in March this year which was nice, got to go home for my mum’s birthday. London Irish flew me home which was really cool. Got to spend my birthday with my mum, actually landed on her birthday so she was very happy.”

Flick through the media guide that England have produced for the Junior World Championship and the nugget of information provided about Cunningham-South is his pride that his mother recently graduated from North Tech University in Whangarei at the age of 50.

“That was awesome. I watched it. I couldn’t go, so I watched it online. I got a link. It was something like two in the morning but I was watching. Now she is fully graduated as a nurse and she is loving it, so very proud of her.

“I saw my dad when I went back as well and got to spend time with him and the family and my sister, whom I am very close to because I lived with her in my last two years at school so seeing her is always good and she is over in September to visit so that will be nice.”

Back to the rugby. Cunningham-South cheekily admitted that the memory that makes his smile is being in his early teens and his dad taking him to McDonald’s before playing a match. For sure, he is now nutrition savvy to make sure he gives himself every chance of starring in his career. “No McDonald’s anymore,” he chuckled.

“I wasn’t always this big. I probably grew maybe the last year of high school, I shot up a bit. I wasn’t that tall but last year at high school I shot up and then I suppose uni, I put some muscle on, put a bit of size on, and then came over here and this guy Tappers at London Irish (head of academy S&C Ian Taplin) worked wonders making sure that my S&C was right and making sure I was getting stronger.

“I’m 1.96 metres or 1.97 and then I am like 120kgs. I probably fluctuate from 120 to 122. At the moment I am happy with that because I can move well and stuff like that, but I’d say I will probably fill out a bit more still.

“You have got to find the right balance and I am at a weight that I am happy with now and I will probably stay that way because I can do what I want on the field. I will fill out a bit just with age, but I wouldn’t say I want to get too much bigger.”


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