Alex Dombrandt: “I’m proud to have taken a different path to standard” | England rugby union team
FFor every aspiring English international, the road to the top is long and winding. Since Hannibal marched his elephants over the Alps, however, no player has taken such a little traveled route to Rome as Alex Dombrandt, already the toast of student unions nationwide as he is preparing to start a Six Nations match for the first time at the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday.
Not so long ago, Dombrandt was enjoying himself at Cardiff Metropolitan University, where he enrolled hoping to play both cricket and rugby, having never featured in the teams or the academies of England. Now the No.8 Harlequins, who are still just 24, are set to start a game for his country, are a Premiership title winner and are set to be a key part of the plans. Eddie Jones for the 2023 World Cup.
Could it be that these seemingly contradictory strands of his CV are in fact connected? The way Dombrandt plays – his anticipation, his instincts, his good hands, his love of scored tries – stands out like a strawberry daiquiri on a platter of lagers. It may be precisely because he didn’t spend his formative years toeing the conventional academy line that he’s soaring so high now.
Dombrandt himself doesn’t disagree and would recommend the university to anyone. “I’m pretty proud of the fact that I took a different path than the norm,” he says. “I’m also quite proud to have a university degree and also to have managed to land a professional contract. For me, it was a win-win situation. Rugby will only last so long, you need something to lean on.
His story, he believes, should also be a silent incitement to others who experience early rejection and therefore assume they are not good enough. “I hope this paves the way for boys growing up who aren’t in an academy. A lot of boys this age, when they don’t get into academies, can think, ‘This is it.’ hope that the fact that I have taken a different path will encourage other boys to take this path as well.
Interestingly, the trend already seems to be accelerating. Dombrandt, Luke Northmore and, now, Tom Pearson have all featured in the senior England squad this month after playing BUCS Super Rugby at the Cardiff Met. Wales’ Aaron Wainwright is another former ‘Archer’, while Christ Tshiunza was preparing for a University of Exeter game last October when national coach Wayne Pivac called him up.
It also shows what’s possible when people put down their beers and commit to playing the game for the simple sake of making life better. Dombrandt’s time as a physical education student at Cardiff was not entirely happy – twice he had his jaw broken following cowardly assaults in games against the opposition of Manchester United. a local club – but the so-called ‘Dominator’ still did enough to attract the Wales age group. selectors despite his complete lack of Welsh family ties.
Studying in Wales, however, was enough to make him eligible, which is how five years ago this week he ended up representing the Wales Under-20s against the Wales Under-20s. ‘England. His memories of that rainy, windy night in Colwyn Bay – “England beat us quite convincingly so it wasn’t the best game” – are mixed, but Harlequins offered him a contract soon enough.
He grabbed it with both hands – it was his local side growing up in Surrey – and never looked back. The “uni rig” referred to by Quins’ then-head coach Paul Gustard has since acquired a more elite physique, but there are still occasional glimpses of the cake-loving multi-sport fan he was formerly.
Along with his father, Steve, who maintains those large pitchside cameras now commonplace in sports stadiums, and older brother Ben, who works in marketing, he remains a lifelong cricket fan and believes playing different sports undoubtedly helped his rugby. “I grew up as a keen footballer and also loved my cricket. It helps with hand-eye coordination. I would definitely encourage people to play as many sports as possible.
It also helps explain why he and Marcus Smith, his Quins and England team-mate, are such good friends, meeting regularly for coffee and food in and around Guildford. “I would say we are similar types of people. We like to do similar things. They live only 10 minutes apart and their innate understanding on the pitch is no coincidence.
Now, at last, the pair have a chance to fit into a major fixture, with Jones suggesting the extra space potentially available against Italy makes it wise to use the No.8 from the start. Jones sees similarities to former Springboks captain Bob Skinstad and Dombrandt is now desperate to land a regular starter shirt. “I don’t think you’ll ever meet a rugby player who is just happy sitting on the bench. I want to start. When you know you’re starting, the whole build is different.
Now he also has the chance to put behind him the line-up malfunction involving himself and Joe Marler – ‘I hope this situation doesn’t happen again’ – which hurt England in the final quarter in Edinburgh . The sting of that Murrayfield defeat hasn’t gone away – “It was a game we should have won” – but according to Dombrandt, England’s future remains bright.
“I think the potential is huge. The amount of talent we have in the dressing room when you look around is incredible. It’s just about working hard every day as a collective, trying to improve and pushing each other. So the sky is the limit. This week we focused a lot on ourselves, what we want to put on the pitch and how we want to play.
Nor did it go unchallenged within the squad that England won the Six Nations title two years ago after losing their opening game. Ultimately, it’s the quest for more feel-good moments that drives Dombrandt.
“The Premiership final was the best day of my life. I wish I could wake up and start all over again. As a child you dreamed of winning the Premiership; it was something I never thought possible. is the memory I will cherish forever.
And this weekend? “All I want is to enjoy the game. When I have fun and have a smile on my face, that’s when I feel like I’m playing my best rugby. In Rome, why change what comes naturally?