Before he arrives to discuss his homecoming, Chandler Cunningham-South wanders past wearing sandals, along a corridor in England's hotel here, casually bouncing a tennis ball off the floor.

Let's just say that the rookie Harlequins flanker doesn't convey the impression of having the weight of the world on his shoulders. As a first-time tourist, back in the country where he grew up, playing in a huge Test series against the mighty All Blacks, there would be good reason for the 21-year-old to be overawed. But he isn't – not in the least.

Cunningham-South is in familiar territory. He spent a couple of years at Westlake Boys High School, north of this busy city, in the suburb of Takapuna. His English parents, Caroline and Richard, live an hour further north again, in Wellsford. 'My mum is a nurse and my dad works a bit on the farm,' said Chandler. 'It's a little farm. They've got cows. It's not dairy, just beef. They don't sell them; they just eat them!

'I haven't managed to get up there yet. I haven't had the time as it's a bit of a drive. Hopefully I get up there before I go home. They're coming on Saturday. Mum came down to the game in Dunedin, which was nice. It's good to have some support.'

It's also been good to have local knowledge, although it hasn't provided too much on-field benefit. Cunningham-South joked that playing for Lincoln University 2nd XV didn't allow him to pass on much insight about the mind-set of the All Blacks. Instead, he has been acting as a tour guide and helping his team-mates look trim. 'I got the barbers in last week to cut some of the boys' hair,' he said.

Being back in New Zealand has brought one significant advantage, compared to what he has become used to since relocating to the UK. A higher standard of fried chicken. 'The KFC is better here,' he said, laughing. 'Just go and taste it. The chips are better, the wings are better. I haven't had any yet, I am waiting till Sunday after the game and I will be able to treat myself to one of those!'

This is a fascinating and momentous experience for Cunningham-South. In a sporting sense, he is continuing to enhance his claims to become the long-term blindside successor to Courtney Lawes in the England pack. And on a personal level, he is on a trip down memory lane; returning to a rugby culture that he left behind to take up a place at the London Irish academy.

Facing the Haka before the first Test in Dunedin last Saturday was a reminder of his own involvement in the pre-match ritual years ago. 'It was an awesome thing to be a part of,' he said. 'I was just thinking, "Let's go, let's go, let's go!" It got me excited to play. It was good.

'You do Hakas in school, so I got to see a few of them. You have to learn it. There are lots of different Hakas, so I wouldn't know how to do the Haka they (All Blacks) did. I knew my school Haka. You do it against each other - you face off. It was cool to be in front of that on Saturday.'

For the match at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Cunningham-South's mum and a friend of hers were in the stand, wearing England shirts. He also had friends watching on TV in other parts of New Zealand. The task this week is to secure as many tickets as he can for the series finale at Eden Park.

Playing in Dunedin, it dawned on him how much has changed since his last appearance in these parts. 'It was weird,' he said. 'The day before, I was thinking that the last time I played a game in New Zealand, I was playing for Lincoln University 2nd XV about three years ago. So things have changed a lot and now I am playing against the All Blacks. It is quite a big U-turn, I guess.'

It's been quite the transformation, since he sent match footage to clubs around the world and Irish won a multi-national tussle for his services. The Exiles added professionalism to raw potential, there were loan appearances for Esher and then a rapid call-up to the England Under 20s. Cunningham-South has barely looked back since.

The recent addition to his repertoire, which has elevated him into Test rugby, has been lineout prowess. There has been a lot of hard graft and studying behind the scenes at Quins, as well as some support and wisdom provided within the England set-up.

'It's my first season properly jumping in the lineout,' he said. 'It's tough to learn all the calls. You've got to prep for the team you're playing against and what they're going to do.

'You have a different menu every week, so you have to learn fast. There's a lot of stuff going on. Maro (Itoje) has been helping me a lot with the lineout and Steve (Borthwick) is obviously a great lineout mind. That is a pretty good team to be helping me get better.'

Despite going to school nearby, Cunningham-South has never been to Eden Park before and - true to form - the prospect doesn't faze him at all. 'It'll be cool,' he said, of the venue where the All Blacks have not lost for three decades.

Moments later, Cunningham-South was off, in his sandals; a picture of calm. When Lawes retired, England lost a formidable, laid-back force of nature. Now they have a new one.

Read more

2024-07-09T17:49:11Z dg43tfdfdgfd