"We know how big of a challenge it is" - Alex Dombrandt: England eight-man recognises the enormity of facing the All Blacks in New Zealand - Ruck

“We know how big of a challenge it is” – Alex Dombrandt: England eight-man recognises the enormity of facing the All Blacks in New Zealand

Hot off the back of their 52-17 win over Japan in Tokyo, England are on now their way to New Zealand for a thrilling two-match series against the All Blacks. Steve Borthwick’s men are set to do battle with Scott Robertson’s new side in Dunedin’s Forsyth Barr Stadium (July 6th) and Auckland’s Eden Park (July 14th) to culminate their Summer tour.

This is the first time that England have toured New Zealand in the traditional sense since 2014, which saw the All Blacks rack up a clean sweep of test victories for a 3-0 series win. England were comfortably beaten by the reigning World Champions, who were only a year away from winning their second consecutive Rugby World Cup title. However one saving grace for Stuart Lancaster’s squad was the non-test victory they achieved on the tour, in the form of a 38-7 win against the Crusaders.

Upon returning to New Zealand for the first time in a decade, England have set out for far better performances than that of the class of 2014. Borthwick’s side are off to a strong start, as they claimed the bragging rights over Eddie Jones’ Brave Blossoms, but there is no understating the challenge of taking on the All Blacks in their own back yard.

One member of the England squad who is eagerly anticipating his first trip to the land known in Moari as Aoteraroa, is Harlequins back-row Alex Dombrandt. Speaking in a recent media session before the squad jetted off for the Summer, Dombrandt expressed his excitement in taking on the All Blacks at their spiritual home of Eden Park.

“Yes, this is massively exciting. I think there’s a lot of boys that haven’t been to Japan or haven’t been to New Zealand, and I think you look at the squad, there’s quite a few young young faces. So it’s going to be a new challenge for a lot of the boys going out there if selected, but one that is massively exciting.

Alex Dombrandt of England during the Summer Nations Series Rugby match between Wales and England at Principality Stadium on August 5, 2023 in Cardiff, Wales. Photo: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

“We’ve got a few lads who have been out there and done it, and can share those experiences. But ultimately, there’s just that sense of excitement that we’re going over there to take it to them.”

“It will be right up there in terms of the stadiums around the world (Eden Park). So yeah, obviously, like I said, if selected I would be very lucky to play.”

“I don’t remember too much actually (the 2014 England tour), how old would I have been, 17? I would still have been in school, so I don’t remember much, but we know how big a challenge it is going to be. Like I said, I think the ultimate sense is excitement, and I’m really looking forward to it.”

Last Kick Drop Goal celebrations from Marcus Smith with Alex Dombrandt of England of England to win the match during the Guinness Six Nations Match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium, Twickenham, London on March 9th 2024. – PHOTO: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

Dombrandt has been taking up a new role throughout recent England performances, as the back-row has been exploding off the bench to raise the tempo once legs begin the falter. Dombrandt is rarely utilised as a replacement for Harlequins, with his 26 club appearances seeing him take the starting number eight shirt throughout the Premiership and Champions Cup campaigns.

However for England, Dombrandt has been issued the number 20 jersey in recent call-ups against Ireland and France, throughout the 2024 Guinness Six Nations. Borthwick has recently preferred to utilise Ben Earl as his starting eight-man, with the Saracen often shifting across to the flank upon Dombrandt’s introduction to the match.

The 27-year-old would typically replace the likes of Sam Underhill, Ethan Roots or Chandler Cunningham-South, and Dombrandt discussed the mental challenges that come with keeping ready in the replacement role.

Alex Dombrandt of England during the Six Nations Match between England and Italy at Twickenham, London on 12 Feb 2023 (Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK)

“Yeah, it’s it’s definitely different. For me, that was my role in the team and I tried to do it to the best of my ability. I was happy with my impacts in the Ireland and France games coming on. So it’s obviously different than starting, but for me, that was my role within a team and I tried to do that to the best of my ability.

“It’s something that I haven’t done lots of, but you’ve just got to workout ways of staying engaged. I guess when you’re watching the game, I think that’s the biggest thing, when you’re on the bench trying to watch the game, stay engaged. Talk to the boys, ‘what’s going on? What are you thinking?’

“So then when you do come on, you’re almost in the game without being in the game, and taking the opportunity.”

Alex Dombrandt of England on the break during the Six Nations Match between England and Italy at Twickenham, London on 12 Feb 2023 (Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK)

Dombrandt has been a softly spoken leader amongst the new crop of England players, as with 17 caps he is one of the more experienced members of the fresh faced group. The Summer tours are always an opportune times for a head coach to introduce young hopefuls for a Test match debut, and Dombrandt has been incorporating his Quins leadership skills to help the uncapped talents learn the ropes of the England camp.

“I think I’ve been encouraged by the coaches to bring that leadership from Quinn’s into this environment. It’s been an area that I’ve been enjoying, I’m not the loudest or sort of speak the most, but I like to think that in the right moments I can help.

Especially with the likes of Fin (Baxter), and Greg Fisilau, and our new faces. With Greg being a number eight as well, I can try to help him with little bits around the place and try and to bring him up to speed as quickly as possible.”

Fin Baxter of Harlequins during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Harlequins and Exeter Chiefs at Twickenham Stoop, London on Sunday 22nd October 2023 (PHOTO: George Beck/PPAUK)

One of the new arrivals whom Dombrandt name-checked is young propping protege Finn Baxter. His Harlequin teammate impressed the coaches, as he booked his place on the tour of Japan and New Zealand. Despite being unable to make his debut in the Far East, Baxter has been under the watchful eye of Joe Marler at Quins, with the veteran loose-head taking up a vice-captaincy role amongst the replacements for the win against Japan.

Dombrandt discussed how Baxter has been steadily progressing since his first days at the Pennyhill Park training camp. Certainly one for the future of England’s front row, Borthwick could well award Baxter his Test match debut against the All Blacks, at either the home of the Highlanders or the Eden Park amphitheatre.

“He’s settled in really nicely. It was obviously a massive achievement for him, and very well deserved after the past couple of seasons that he’s had. I think especially, (I’ve) just tried to pick little things up with him here and there, just to try and help him out and give him a little head start of what to expect, and the standards that this environment holds. He’s done really well, and he’s getting stuck in. Which is all we can ask for.”

Fin Baxter of Harlequins before the Gallahgher Premiership match between Saracens and Harlequins at The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, London on 25 March 2023 (Photo: Micah Crook/PPAUK)

“Although he’s young, he’s very mature and very smart. So the way he picks things up is extremely impressive, so I didn’t have to help him out too much.”

Another Harlequin whom Dombrandt has been getting the reps in with for both club and country, is back-row forward Chandler Cunningham-South. The former London Irishman has had an immediate impact upon his arrival at the Stoop, and continued his international momentum from the England U20s set-up, to progress straight into Steve Borthwick’s senior team.

Cunningham-South made his Test match debut against Italy, as Borthwick awarded a handful of uncapped hopefuls their maiden cap at the start of the 2024 Guinness Six Nations. The 21-year-old joined the likes of Fin Smith, Fraser Dingwall and Ethan Roots in the post-match cap presentation, and has been on a fierce upward trajectory ever since.

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

Dombrandt was full of praise for his back-row brother in arms, and expressed his delight at the partnership they have formed in both the famous Quins quarters, and whilst wearing the red rose.

“I’ve really enjoyed working with him at Quins. I think we’ve complemented each other really well. Like you say, I think we’ve got different strengths, which come together quite nicely. So we’ve been working hard at it. I’ve really enjoyed obviously transferring that over to the England environment as well.”

“It’s been a tough couple of weeks. But really enjoyable. I think from from day one, we jumped right into it. So yes, all about setting out the way we want to play, and the way we want to drive the team forward, and getting everyone aligned with the new fresh faces we’ve got in camp. That’s been good.”