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Sam Warburton makes 'massive' Lions prediction about England rookie

By Liam Heagney
England's Chandler Cunningham-South goes on attack during his Test debut in Rome last weekend (Photo by Silvia Lore/Getty Images)

Former British and Irish Lions skipper Sam Warburton has been so impressed by new England cap Chandler Cunningham-South that he has tipped the 20-year-old to be in the blindside conversation for next year’s tour to Australia.

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Just eight months ago, the English-born/New Zealand-raised back-rower was left unemployed after the financially stricken London Irish collapsed.

After trying out for North Harbour U18s, Canterbury U19s and even dabbling in rugby league when training with the NZ Warriors, he had joined the Exiles academy in February 2022 and soon blazed a trail into their first team.

That quick-step impact ultimately stood to him. Harlequins put his mind at ease over his future by offering him a deal for the 2023/24 season while he was away in South Africa with the England U20s, but never could have imagined he would so quickly make the step up since then to Test-level rugby.

Cunningham-South was easily the most impressive of Steve Borthwick’s replacements when making a debut last weekend in Rome off the England bench, immediately announcing himself on the scene with a brilliantly executed try-saving tackle.

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He is now primed for a second run after being retained among the replacements for this Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations encounter in London versus Wales.

That’s a fixture that ex-Wales captain Warburton can’t wait to see unfold, especially given how bowled over he has been by his fellow back-rower this winter.

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The Canterbury ambassador said: “I saw this kid play pre-Christmas because Harlequins were playing Cardiff. There was one kid who stood out and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, how is he not in the England set-up?’

“Fast forward to the Six Nations and he came off the bench the other day for England and had 15 minutes – Chandler Cunningham-South is a serious player. He’s 6ft 5ins, explosive, big, aggressive and technically very good as well. There are not many No6s around and there is always room for an enforcer in your pack.

“You need someone who can spearhead the effort. Joe McCarthy is doing that now for Ireland and Cunningham-South can be that player at six who is really disruptive. In 18 months, he is going to be red hot and in the conversation (for the Lions).

“To play international rugby you have got to have a certain athletic ability at the top level. Look at the top back row players who are having an impact; you have got (Caelan) Doris, Jac Morgan, Ben Earl, Aaron Wainwright. These guys are exceptional athletes, very physical and very tough.

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“I look at Cunningham-South and he has got all that – plus size. Probably the biggest and most athletic back row the home nations have at the minute.

“He’s only 20 which means he has still got another 18 months of growth physically. And he has got 18 months of just getting Test match experience, playing with England and playing with Quins.

“He has just got that athletic ability and size I haven’t seen present in any of the home nations, and the important bit is he has got the mentality, the bit between his teeth, that aggressiveness you need at level. And you can’t coach aggressiveness.

“He seems to have the full package; I just hope he gets some game time. Great athlete, good in defence, good ball carrier. He could be that massive six I think the Lions could really benefit from and be destructive.”

Despite his delight over the emergence of Cunningham-South with England, Warburton is predicting a tricky afternoon for Borthwick and co at Twickenham this weekend. “The pressure is on England and people will be thinking they should put Wales to the sword given that Scotland beat them.

“But given that the pressure is off Wales, it will suit them. England are red-hot favourites. Wales have not won there (in the Six Nations) since 2012 and before that, it was 2008. They were both Grand Slam teams who won at Twickenham; you don’t win at Twickenham as an average team.

“The odds are stacked against Wales. Twickenham was one of my favourite places to play but it was always so hard to go there. If I was a betting man I’d go with England, but it does suit Wales that the pressure is off. If they can put England under some pressure early, just like Italy did last week, it could be a tricky afternoon.”

  • Canterbury ambassador Sam Warburton was speaking at the Canterbury British and Irish Lions preview event, which gave retailers the first look at the 2025 Lions jersey
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chrash 126 days ago

Couldn’t agree more that he’s a really exciting prospect - a real standout from the Italy v England game last week. In terms of Lions selection, I would imagine this will depend on Farrell’s approach - his success with Ireland in getting them well-drilled with a dynamic pack focussed on link play won’t necessarily be achievable in the shorter time frame he’ll have with the Lions. So an aggressive, destructive 6 to get them over the gain line and fire up the defence would no doubt be a great asset if there are teething problems getting systems with more complexity going!

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