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“We know how big the challenge is” – Alex Dombrandt: England eight-man squad recognizes the enormity of New Zealand showdown with All Blacks

Following their 52-17 win over Japan in Tokyo, England now head to New Zealand for a thrilling two-match series against the All Blacks. Steve Borthwick’s men will take on Scott Robertson’s new side at Dunedin’s Forsyth Barr Stadium (July 6) and Auckland’s Eden Park (July 14) to culminate their summer tour.

This is the first time England have toured New Zealand in a traditional sense since 2014, where the All Blacks completed a string of test victories to claim a 3-0 win in the series. England were comfortably defeated by the reigning world champions, who were just a year away from winning their second consecutive Rugby World Cup title. A saving grace for Stuart Lancaster’s side, however, was the non-test win they achieved on the tour, in the form of a 38-7 victory against the Crusaders.

Returning to New Zealand for the first time in a decade, England are on course for much better performances than those of the class of 2014. Borthwick’s side get off to a strong start as they claim bragging rights over Eddie Jones’ Brave Blossoms . , but the challenge of taking on the All Blacks in their own backyard cannot be underestimated.

One member of the England squad who is eagerly awaiting his first trip to the land known in Moari as Aoteraroa is Harlequin back row Alex Dombrandt. During a recent media session before the squad departed for the summer, Dombrandt expressed his excitement about taking on the All Blacks at their spiritual home of Eden Park.

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

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

“We have a few guys who have done it and can share those experiences. But at the end of the day, there’s just that sense of excitement that we’re going out there to bring it to them.

“It will be right up there when it comes to the stadiums around the world (Eden Park). So yes, obviously, as I said, if I were selected, I would be very lucky to play.

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

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

Dombrandt has taken on a new role in recent England appearances, as the back row of the bench exploded to push the pace as soon as the legs started to falter. Dombrandt is rarely used as a substitute for Harlequins, his 26 club appearances seeing him take the starting number eight during the Premiership and Champions Cup campaigns.

For England, however, Dombrandt has been handed the number 20 jersey in recent call-ups against Ireland and France, during the 2024 Guinness Six Nations. Borthwick has recently favored using Ben Earl as his starting eight-man, with the Saracen often moved 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 staying ready in the replacement role.

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

“Yes, it’s definitely different. For me, that was my role in the team and I tried to do that as best I could. I was happy with my impact in the matches in Ireland and France. So it is obviously different from starting, but for me that was my role within a team and I tried to do that as best as I could.

“It’s something I haven’t done much yet, but you just have to find ways to stay involved. I think when you watch the game that’s the most important thing: when you sit on the bench and watch the game, stay involved. Talk to the boys: ‘What’s going on? What do you think?’

“So when you take action, you’re almost in the game without actually being in the game and taking advantage of the opportunity.”

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

Dombrandt has been a soft-spoken leader among the new crop of England players as he is one of the more experienced members of the new group with 17 caps. The summer tours are always an opportune time for a head coach to introduce young hopefuls for a Test match debut, and Dombrandt has used his Quins leadership skills to help the unprecedented talents learn the ropes of the England camp.

“I think I was encouraged by the coaches to bring Quinn’s leadership to this environment. It’s an area I’ve enjoyed, I’m not the loudest or the most vocal, but I like to think I can help at the right times.

Especially with people like Fin (Baxter) and Greg Fisilau, and our new faces, and because Greg is also number eight, I can try to help him with little bits and pieces in the environment and get him up to speed as quickly as possible.

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

One of the newcomers controlled by Dombrandt is young protégé Finn Baxter. His Harlequin teammate impressed the coaches as he booked his place on the tour of Japan and New Zealand. Despite not being able to make his Far East debut, Baxter was under the watchful eye of Joe Marler at Quins, with the experienced loose-head taking on the role of vice-captain among the substitutes for the win against Japan.

Dombrandt discussed how Baxter has made steady progress since his first days at the Pennyhill Park training camp. Certainly one for the future of England’s front row. Borthwick could well grant Baxter his test match debut against the All Blacks, either at the home of the Highlanders or at the Eden Park amphitheater.

“He is in a very good place. It was clearly a huge achievement for him, and very well deserved after the last few seasons he has had. I think mainly I’ve been discussing little things with him here and there, just to help him out and give him a little bit of a head start on what to expect, and the standards that this environment has. He’s done really well and he’s sticking around. That’s all we can ask for.’

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

“Even though 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 too much.”

Another Harlequin with whom Dombrandt has secured reps for both club and country is Chandler Cunningham-South in the back row. The former London Irishman has made an immediate impact upon his arrival at the Stoop, continuing his international momentum from the England U20 set-up to move 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 first caps at the start of the 2024 Guinness Six Nations. The 21-year-old joined the likes of Finn Smith, Fraser Dingwall and Ethan Roots at the post-match presentation of the caps, and has been on a fierce upward trajectory since then.

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

Dombrandt was full of praise for his brother in the back row and expressed his pleasure at the partnership they had formed in the two famous Quins rooms, where they also wore the red rose.

“I really enjoyed working with him at Quins. I think we complemented each other very well. As you say, I think we have different strengths that come together very nicely. So we worked hard on it. I really enjoyed transferring that to the English environment, of course.”

“It’s been a tough few weeks. But really enjoy it. I think we jumped right into it from day one. So yeah, it’s all about defining the way we want to play, and the way we want to move the team forward, and getting everyone on the same page with the new fresh faces we have in camp. That was good.”