Chandler Cunningham-South: Raised in New Zealand & Performed Hakas - England Flanker "Felt Proud" to face All Blacks challenge - Ruck

Chandler Cunningham-South: Raised in New Zealand & Performed Hakas – England Flanker “Felt Proud” to face All Blacks challenge

It has been a surreal experience for England back-row Chandler Cunningham-South, as having grown up playing rugby through the New Zealand ranks, the 21-year-old is back alongside family and friends for the tour against the All Blacks.

Cunningham-South grew up performing the haka for his school and university teams, with the importance of the pre-match ritual engrained deep within the hard-hitting flanker. Cunningham-South was born in the London area of Sidcup, bet moved over to New Zealand at the age of four.

Chandler Cunningham-South of England during the England Captains Run at Twickenham Stadium, London on 9 February 2024 (Photo: George Beck/PPAUK)

With the Kiwi lifestyle engrained within the Harlequin, and a twinge of the accent coming back after a week in the country, Cunningham-South expressed his experiences of facing the haka ahead of last Saturday’s Test in Dunedin.

“It was an awesome thing to be a part of on Saturday. Obviously I’m gutted we didn’t get the result, but it was cool. I enjoyed it. I felt proud out there. I had lots of friends watching who live in New Zealand, so it was cool for them to see me out there. I felt happy. It was good. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but I had a smile on my face as I was happy to be out there playing.”

Having learned his fair few of pre-match hakas through his rugby-orientated childhood and teenage years in New Zealand, Cunningham-South felt spurred on to perform after lining up against the All Blacks revered ‘Kapa o Pango’. The Forsyth Barr Stadium reached a fever-pitch ahead of kick-off, with the enclosed roof barely keeping a lid on the near 30,000 strong contingency of All Blacks fans.

Cunningham-South certainly got a lift from facing off against the All Blacks Haka, and recalled how he felt in that moment compared to previous schoolboys Haka face-offs.

“Let’s go, I guess! You do Hakas in school, so I got to see a few of them. It was just more like ‘let’s go’ (against the All Blacks) it got me excited to play. It was good.

“You have to learn it, but there are lots of different Hakas, so I wouldn’t know how to the Haka they did. I knew my school Haka, but I wouldn’t be able to do it now.’

“Yeah you do it against each other, you face off. It’s cool to be in front of that. It was a cool feeling I had.”

Try celebrations for Chandler Cunningham-South of London Irish during the Gallagher Premiership match between London Irish and Leicester Tigers at The Gtech Community Stadium, London on 25 February 2023 (Photo: Danny Loo/PPAUK)

Firstly a scholar at Hamilton Boys High School before attending Westlake Boys High School, Cunningham-South’s academic experiences saw him play alongside an assortment of players who also broke into the professional sphere. Add in a graduation from Lincoln University, and Cunningham-South’s collection of yearbooks is decorated with former classmates that have gone on to excel in rugby, including All Blacks capped hooker George Bell.

Cunningham-South spent time in the development academies of Canterbury and North Harbour, with the former supplying players to the Crusaders and the latter to the Blues. In a unique sense of coming full circle, Cunningham-South’s England back-row teammate Ethan Roots also spent time with North Harbour, and progressed to the provincial squad, with the England camp using the stadium for mid-week preparations. Running down a register of his former school and college teammates, Cunningham-South said;

“Jone Rova. He’s, he debuted for the Crusaders. He was at Lincoln when I was there. And then a couple other boys, who haven’t quite got into the team yet, but there’s quite a few. 

So Jone Rova, there’s another guy. Jamie Hannah. There’s quite a few of them who have gone through to play Canterbury and stuff because it is a good system there.”

“Yeah, one of the guys from school, Tiennan (Costley) was in the Japan team.”

“Everyone’s path is different I guess. It’s good to see people you know, making on to the big stage, wherever that may be. I think it’s good.”

“It was weird. The day before (the first Test) I was thinking the last time I played a game in New Zealand, I think I was playing for Lincoln University second XV about three years ago. So things change a lot and now I am playing against the All Blacks. It is quite a big U-turn I guess. It’s cool.”

Rugby is certainly a sport that opens up unexpected doors to broadened horizons, with Cunningham-South taking full advantage of the unorthodox route through to the England senior squad. However, it was not as simple as walking into the England U20s and graduating for an England men’s cap the following year, as Cunningham-South recognised the personal qualities he possess that has driven him to achieve in the England environment.

Chandler Cunningham-South of England during the England Rugby Training at Twickenham Stadium, London on 16 February 2024 (Photo: George Beck/PPAUK)

“I think if you’ve got the right people around you and you’re getting the help you need, lots of players can get there, for sure. You’ve got to be in the right place and when I went over, I think that was the right place for me at the right time. Maybe if it had been a year earlier, probably not, but at that time I felt like it was.”

“When I made the decision to leave (New Zealand for England), I thought, ‘I have to do something with this; I can’t just go there and chill out, you’ve got a job to do’, because it was a long way from my mum and dad, so I had to make sure it was worth it.

“Learning all that, the professional stuff, was quite hard for me. But then getting help along the way, when I was at (London) Irish, was very helpful. The guys there guided me on the right path which was good.”

Cunningham-South’s journey is interesting tale that again exemplifies how the English rugby sphere is truly a global game. The back-row is amongst the talents with the fastest rising stocks, as fans across the world learn of the skills he brings to the forefront. One area where Cunningham-South’s quality was required against the All Blacks is the breakdown, with the Harlequin expressing how the rucks were intensely contested at the Forsyth Barr Stadium.

“It was, the breakdown was pretty aggressive. I guess, could be a word for it. But you know, it was battle going on there. I don’t really know how to sum it up.”

“I think we know they’ve got a lot of threats over the ball. Like Ardie (Savea), Dalton (Papali’i). Those two guys are big jackal threats. So yeah, I think we knew it was coming, just obviously being prepared for that. You can train all you want it’s quite hard when I’m over the ball I guess you’re gonna get there quick.”

Whilst Cunningham-South is excelling at the breakdown and taking plenty of teachings from his All Black opponents, the back-row is now trying his had at a new part of the forward’s game. Learning under the tutelage of line-out leader Maro Itoje, Cunningham-South is being put through his paces for the side-line throw in, as he tries his hand at going airbourne at the back of the line.