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Mugabe’s thugs sent Don Armand on the rugby trail

By Nick Cain

MEET Don Armand, Mr Adaptable. The rangy Zimbabwean-born Exeter Chiefs flanker, who won his first England cap off the bench in the first Test of the summer tour of Argentina, has that priceless capacity of being able to turn his hand to whatever is required.

At the line-out his flexible 6ft 3ins frame is slip-streamed enough to soar, and he has become one of the best jumpers in the Premiership. In the loose he has the leverage, balance and strength over the ball to win clearouts and turnovers, and the technique, commitment and work-rate to be consistently at the top of Premiership tackle counts.

If you add to that an engine that is not just non-stop, but comes with an overdrive that gives Armand the speed to be a highly-effective carrier or support runner in the wide channels, and you have a picture of why most pundits were scratching their heads in puzzlement when he failed to win a place in the England squad for the Autumn series.

Sure, the competition is fierce, with England coach Eddie Jones a strong advocate of Chris Robshaw, and also equipped with the option of putting mobile locks like Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje at No.6. However, none of them have been as consistently good at blindside – or openside – over the past two years as Armand, whose English grandparents include a former British Army surgeon.

Last season Armand was a driving force in the Chiefs push to win their first Premiership title only seven seasons after promotion from the Championship, not least with a man-of-the-match performance in their cliffhanger victory in the final over Wasps. This campaign the 29-year-old has been at the forefront of their two-pronged ambition to do the double by retaining the domestic title and achieve another first by winning the European Cup.

With success in Europe over Glasgow and a pulsating away victory over Montpellier, the Exeter men are making good headway, and with Armand ensconced at blindside in a powerful line-up for today’s Premiership clash with Harlequins in Devon, the visitors will be hard pressed to halt their advance.

Armand’s childhood involved his family being forced to leave their successful flower farm near Harare when Robert Mugabe encouraged former veterans of the Bush war – and many who were simply opportunists – to appropriate white-owned land.

With gunfights and fatalities on white farms increasing, as well as black farm workers being beaten-up routinely, the Armand family moved to South Africa when Don was 12.

Ousted: Robert Mugabe resigned after 37 years of unrivalled rule in Zimbabwe on Tuesday (photo: Getty Images)

Armand still has a keen interest in Zimbabwe, not least the news of Mugabe’s grip on power finally being loosened when he was put under house arrest this week.

He says: “We knew something had to change, and probably that it had to involve the military. It is exciting – but you don’t know the real motives, and you can’t jump the gun because it could be a twisted plot to achieve a particular succession.”

When Armand talks about the way his parents responded to the slings and arrows of fortune in Africa you get a picture of somebody who was well-schooled in how to be resilient and adapt to changing circumstances.

“My mum and dad always had the thing of starting from scratch – they are very good at starting projects up, and they have always been prepared to do the hard work. With the flower farm they worked as a team – mum did the administration, and dad the farming.”

While his mother has moved to be close to him and his young family in Exeter, he says his father’s latest venture is pigeon racing, working with his brother to set up a world pigeon race in Victoria Falls with a projected $1 million in prize money.

Armand says: “Pigeon racing is not something you would automatically think about, but there’s really big money in it, mostly from the entry fee for the birds to compete.”

Ask him if he would consider moving back to Zimbabwe if conditions improve by the time he retires from playing, and the answer suggests it is a head against heart conundrum: “I’d love to, because it has all my childhood memories, and it’s in my blood. But it is also a selfish thing, because I have a wife, Rayanne, and two young children over here, and we are all happily settled in Devon.”

Rugby was a constant presence in Armand’s life, starting by playing barefoot as a seven-year-old near Harare under the tutelage of Debbie Cairns, the mother of a team-mate. When his family relocated to Pietermaritzburg in South Africa, he attended Pietermaritzburg College, which has produced Springboks like Joel Stransky, the 1995 World Cup final hero, and the current Springbok centre Jesse Kriel.

Armand takes up the story: “After school I got a rugby scholarship to the University of Cape Town where I studied for a degree in psychology, and I concentrated on that before my rugby.

“I was in high-performance squads but I did not make the regional or South African U18 or U20 squads. However, I played in the Varsity Cup and was brought into the Western Province training squad for the Currie Cup.”

He continues: “That’s where things took off, and I played in Western Province’s Currie Cup-winning side in 2011, and also for the Stormers in Super Rugby. However, I got offers from Exeter and Worcester, and I joined the Chiefs because I’d heard plenty of good things about them and about what Rob Baxter was doing at the club.”

The trajectory since he arrived in Exeter in 2013 has been inexorably upwards, with defeat by Saracens in the 2016 Premiership final spurring the Chiefs to get to the summit a year later after dethroning Saracens in last season’s semi-final at Sandy Park.

However, despite two seasons of peak performance, Armand is measured in his response to being asked if he expected to be part of the England Autumn squad. “Everyone wants to be part of it, there are a lot of players who can be there, and there are not that many places. It would have been amazing, but it didn’t happen, and you get on with it.”

He bats away the suggestion that his two-try man-of-the-match role in Exeter’s recent 27-24 victory over Montpellier – the French club’s first home loss in 14 months and the best European result in Chiefs’ history – should have catapulted him into Jones’ Autumn squad when it was announced just four days later.

“It was so emotional from the team point of view to beat a side with 19 successive wins on their own ground, who averaged 40 points a match, that I didn’t think of it in terms of an individual performance. So, I only thought about it from a personal viewpoint when asked about it (in the Press conference) afterwards.”

Down and dirty: Don Armand turned in match-winning performances for the Chiefs against Montpellier in the Champions Cup (photo: Getty Images)

However, he reveals that his performance did not go unnoticed and that the England coach called him to say he was close, and to keep going – which, he says, is all the encouragement he needs.

“Eddie Jones is getting really good results at Test level, so that doesn’t mean he’s going to change-up just because people are playing well in the Premiership. When players are providing what the coach needs in terms of results he sticks with them, and the same applies at the Chiefs.”

Armand is similarly clear-cut about the suggestion that Jones wants more evidence that he is as effective as a heavy-duty carrier close to the ruck as he is out wide.

“Different coaches want to see you work on different things, which is understandable and also challenges and improves you as a player. But we have a system we work on here at the Chiefs, and so it cannot be to the detriment of the team. Usually that isn’t the case, and you just hope that you can show enough of what they want by playing to the best of your ability.”

What stands Armand in good stead is the ferocity of the competition he faces on a weekly basis at the Chiefs. The champions’ back row roster is arguably the most impressive in the Premiership, with fellow England internationals Sam Simmonds, Matt Kvesic and Thomas Waldrom, plus former Wallaby blindside Dave Dennis, in the mix with a fit-again Dave Ewers and Kai Horstmann.

Armand says that adaptability is his biggest strength in the battle to make his case. “Different players have different strengths, but one of the most important attributes you can have is to give a coach what he wants. I started at seven and then switched to six with the Chiefs, but because we have set roles it doesn’t matter too much which back row shirt you are wearing. Whether it’s Rob Baxter, Ali Hepher or Rob Hunter, all the Exeter coaches are there on a daily basis to help with advice and skills, and they build confidence.”

He says this is reinforced by the core values that are instilled at Exeter. “Rob (Baxter) is pretty vocal about the fact that we work hard here, but that it’s also about enjoying it at the same time. In terms of bonding, we do it in our own Chiefs way. It’s about making sure that we are looking after each other, and that’s not just in training, or on the field, or in the changing room – it’s as friends and families outside. We look out for each other.”

Armand says that is why winning the double like Saracens did in 2016 is an attainable target for the Chiefs this season. “It’s definitely achievable. It’s just about making sure we stay on track game by game.”

Armand applies the same positive thinking to his own prospects of forcing his way into the England squad for the 2019 World Cup. “There is a big chance, and you have to have goals. I’m 29, but there are guys who are older than me in the England squad, so that’s not a barrier. It’s about producing to a high level consistently. We work hard at Exeter, so you have to be fit – and I pride myself on it.”

He says that his approach is to do the work required of him assiduously. “I don’t really do any extras because I believe that if you follow what the strength and conditioning guys say it works pretty well. It’s more about mentally staying on task. It’s about the weeks when you come in and you are really sore. That’s when you must not take the shortcuts like having a coffee instead of getting in the ice bath and doing the recovery properly.”

When it comes to the mental flexibility, toughness and tenacity required to get round obstacles and reach an objective Armand has a proven track-record – and it is why you suspect that Exeter’s Mr Adaptable will force his way into Eddie Jones’ 2019 World Cup plans sooner rather than later.

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