ALEX Dombrandt is in a Catch-22 as the restart begins. Eddie Jones does not like selection by media, and the louder the calls grow for the England head coach to select a particular player – as they have for the barnstorming Harlequins No.8 this season – the more he appears to resist.
It is a perception which it is impossible to prove, although at various times through Jones’ five year tenure the likes of Danny Cipriani, Jamie George, and stop-start scrum-halves Ben Spencer and Dan Robson might beg to differ.
A former England and Harlequins talisman who has a clear difference of opinion with Jones’ back row selection policy is Peter Winterbottom, who is bewildered by Dombrandt being left in the sidings.
Winterbottom, who is currently director of rugby at Esher, has a unique vantage point as an openside flanker who played with and against some of the game’s legendary No.8s including England greats like Dean Richards, Mike Teague and Lawrence Dallaglio, and All Blacks of the calibre of Murray Mexted and Zinzan Brooke.
Winterbottom says: “Dombrandt’s potential is massive. He is a skilful player, he has good hands, whether it’s passing, linking or offloading – he’s a quick big man who hits good lines in attack.”
Winterbottom is incredulous that the 6ft 4ins, 18st 5lb/117kg Dombrandt, who offered Jones a ready-made physical presence to replace Billy Vunipola when the first-choice No.8 was injured before the 2020 Six Nations, did not get a look-in.
He is even more stunned that, instead, the England coach pressed openside flanker Tom Curry into service at No.8.
“The Curry thing in the Six Nations did not make sense to me, when his position is openside. I’m staggered. Curry is a very good No.7, who is on his way to becoming the best in the world now that Richie McCaw has gone. So why, when he’s establishing himself in that role, do you play him at 8? Let him be the best 7 in the world, and find yourself a No.8 – and there is nothing I can see that means Dombrandt would not be a very good international No.8 now. ”
Winterbottom continues: “Curry did a good job at 8 because he’s such a good player, but Dombrandt is far more explosive carrying the ball. Going forward he is one of the best in the country, and whether he is hitting those lines close in or out wide he is equally dangerous.”
Winterbottom believes also that the 23-year-old Dombrandt is every bit as good as the promising crop of young New Zealand No.8s, such as Akira Ioane, Hoskins Sotutu (both Blues) and Marino Tu’u (Highlanders), who have had the chance to use Super Rugby Aotearoa as a showcase.
He says: “It has been great to watch, but I’d have loved to see Dombrandt playing in those games, because he would have been outstanding. He is very quick for a big man, and he has got to be in contention because he has x-factor. He is also a real down-to-earth kid with good values, and he plays because he enjoys it.”
Winterbottom adds: “His attacking play is high quality, but sure, there are some fine points for him to work on. His breakdown work and tackling is solid, but could improve, and I have had a close look at his work-rate, which I do not believe is an issue.”
“That’s why I thought that the England coaches would have taken him to the 2019 World Cup. If it is about him refining his game at the top level and making good decisions, being there would have been invaluable.”
Dombrandt, who only got as far as the pre-tournament training camp in Treviso on an injury call up after scoring two tries for an uncapped England XV against the Barbarians, takes a glass half-full outlook. “It was good to get a taste for it. I learned a lot about how it works, and about myself.”
Part of that has been having to take it on the chin when his Quins squad nickname of “The Dominator” leaked into the public domain. Asked how often his team-mates refer to it on a daily basis he almost keeps a straight face.
“Hah! Not often to be honest. Last season, when it first came out, a few boys liked to tease me with it. But this season it’s died off a bit, and it’s actually been quite refreshing. I’m happy if it filters out. I’ve got so many names, but no-one calls me Alex – Dom’s good.”
Through the lens of a conference call, the Quins No.8 looks in good shape after a second pre-season, and, as he contemplates Friday’s restart opener against Sale Sharks, there is a bounce in his step that suggests his try tally of 21 in 44 appearances in his first two seasons at the Stoop will be added to.
Dombrandt told The Rugby Paper he is coming into the match at his best fighting weight, having shed one and a half stone (10kg) since he joined Harlequins from Cardiff Metropolitan University, when he weighed almost 20st (127kg).
“I lost quite a bit of weight over lockdown, but in the last few weeks I’ve put some back on since starting full training. I’m around 117kg (18st 5lb), and I feel really good at that weight. I feel I’m quick, and I’m still good in the contact area.”
Ask Dombrandt if he feels that Billy Vunipola’s drop down to the Championship with Saracens will give others more of a chance to challenge him for the England No.8 shirt and he gives a que sera, sera answer.
“Who knows? It’s the million dollar question. I guess the only person who can probably answer that is Eddie (Jones). The only thing I can do is keep on putting in good performances, and if Eddie wants to pick me, then he’ll pick me.”
So, what does Dombrandt bring that is different, and what does he believe he has to do to really grab the England head coach’s attention?
“I guess my strength is the attacking side. I like the ball in my hands, I like to carry and try to make things happen. Look, the defensive side of my game has always been second to my attack, so it’s an area I’ve made good improvements on under Paul Gustard. If I can keep improving it will make me more of a rounded player, and, hopefully, that will push me up the selection order.”
Dombrandt is Surrey-born and bred, and raised in south Croydon. He learned his rugby at Warlingham RFC before going on to John Fisher School – but his first love was cricket, and he looks back fondly on his time with Chipstead CC as a heavy-hitting middle order batsman.
It might explain why he was not part of any English pro club academy, and nor did he play any representative rugby until he went to Wales. Having made waves playing lock/No.8 for Cardiff Metropolitan University he was soon sounded out by Wales U20s, despite having no Welsh family connections, and he says accepting the offer was straightforward.
“I went to uni for three years to do Sport & PE and enjoyed it. I played a good standard in BUCS super rugby and was lucky enough to be selected for the Wales U20s. It was a great experience, they were really welcoming, and I fitted in well. I got to play at international level at age grade, and it helped me improve my performances.”
Asked if he thinks it has counted against him that he was not on Englan’s radar for as long as most of his peers, and his reply is matter-of fact: “England didn’t want me, so when Wales came for me I played for them. I wanted to play at the highest level possible – and when Wales said they were interested, for me it was a win-win situation.”
However, it also brought Dombrandt adversity, when a punch from behind in a match between his university and Glynneath, and a further assault in a second match against the same club, saw him sustain jaw-breaks which required surgery and left him with four metal plates in his face. The first assailant was handed a ten-month suspended prison sentence and a £2,000 fine, but the second court case yielded no convictions.
Despite surgical complications and nagging pain Dombrandt battled back, and overall looks at his Welsh experience as a big bonus.
It saw Dombrandt play for Wales U20 against an England U20 side featuring Sale’s Curry brothers, and there is every chance of them meeting again on Friday – although he does not expect a No.8 head-to-head against Tom Curry.
“I can’t see him playing No.8 for them. They’ve got a good No.8 in one of the Du Preez brothers (Dan), and his out-and-out position is No.7. Obviously, Tom did a great job for England at No.8, but the Sale pack has got a great balance to it. They are big boys, and they bring a lot of physicality – but we will give them a run for their money.”
Dombrandt says that the lack of a home crowd at the Stoop against Sale will be a leveller, and that adjusting quickly is key.
“We love a packed stadium, and the noisier the better for me, but we are making sure we are prepared for the resumption. It is down to you as an individual (to get yourself up emotionally), but we are pro rugby players. It’s going to feel weird, but then everything with coronavirus has felt weird. I guess Sale have to travel, although home or away it’s now pretty much a level playing field. But you want your home ground to be your fortress.”
A significant element in seventh-placed Harlequins ability to disrupt Sale, who are second in the table, will revolve around the potent 8-9 link featuring Dombrandt and Danny Care.
Dombrandt explains that it is a partnership that he thrives on, but that the veteran England scrum-half is the boss. “He always calls the shots! I ask him what he wants and try to deliver it to him. He’s got the trust and belief in me that if I was to go off script he would back my decision and follow. But, in terms of who calls the shots, he definitely does, and I follow him.”
Dombrandt also pays tribute to former Quins and England captain Chris Robshaw, who he describes as a massive influence, and says will be missed when he leaves for the USA to join the San Diego Legion after seeing out the 2019-20 season.
“Growing up he was a player I idolised, and now I’m sat next to him. In training even now I try to pick up on what he does, because his work ethic is second to none. We want to give him a big send-off, and everyone is champing at the bit to win some silverware again.”
Harlequins are 12 league points adrift of Sale, but only seven behind fourth-placed Northampton, which Dombrandt believes makes a play-off place, and even a late charge for the title, within their remit.
“Absolutely, we have the belief we can win the league. We know we have to be more consistent, but we know that when we are good we are really good.”
Winterbottom is convinced that Dombrandt is international class, and should be brought into the England squad to challenge Vunipola.
“If he was playing for any other country, he would have had a chance by now. He has indicated that he could be very good Test player, and given that other guys have been given chances, it makes you think, why hasn’t he? We won’t know what he can do at international level until he has a chance. My sense is that he could step into those shoes tomorrow and really impress.”
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