Why Alex Dombrandt may be about to stake a genuine claim to the 'World Cup bolter' title
The title of a World Cup or British and Irish Lions bolter is a tag thrown around at will during the twelve months that proceed rugby union's biggest events, but few to nil actually fulfil the prophecy. However, breakthrough Harlequins backrow Alex Dombrandt might be about to claim the title with just cause, serving as a backup to England's Billy Vunipola in Japan.
It’s been a little while since Eddie Jones handed us a position of interest to debate. First, it was the ‘six and a half’ saga at openside that was put to an end byb the emergence the Tom Curry-Sam Underhill tandem. Next was the debate for the fifteen jersey, with the once first-choice Mike Brown seemingly dropping to as low as fourth-choice fullback behind the attacking-inclined trio of Elliot Daly, Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell. Daly’s appointment to the fifteen jersey during last summer’s tour of South Africa and subsequent uninterrupted twelve starts ended that debate. With the sudden exclusion of Wasps number eight Nathan Hughes, the next question comes at the back of the scrum and may provide us with genuine World Cup bolter.
While bristling Saracens man Billy Vunipola still claims the monopoly of England’s number eight jersey, his tendency to pick up lengthy injuries - a product of generating such power in the carry and withstanding the main focus of an international defence - has caused plenty of headaches for the England selectors. This high rate of injury places immense importance on the need for an understudy, the role Hughes has filled for England since qualifying on residency in 2016, amassing 22 caps and 12 starts.
On the occasion that both Hughes and Vunipola have been laid up, an uncomfortably common occurrence for Jones, Exeter’s Sam Simmonds has been drafted in, while blindside flankers Chris Robshaw and Mark Wilson have both enjoyed short spells at the back of the scrum when called upon. Promising young Bath eight Zach Mercer earned his starting debut against Japan at the end of last year and has featured in a number of squads, shaking the apprentice tag earlier this season but has never been viewed as a starter; this is thought to be credited to a lack of size, with Jones encouraging the 22-year-old to pack on a few kilos before he can play a regular role for the national team. Now, with less than five months to go to the World Cup Jones's tenure has revolved around, Hughes exclusion is all the more curious, especially with the 28-year-old back to something close to his career-best form for Wasps.
Out of all the men that have served as backup to Vunipola over the last three and a half years, only Wilson has been included in the last two World Cup camps, with none of Robshaw, Mercer or Simmonds likely to appear in the final tournament squad next Thursday. Instead, Harlequins breakthrough player of the year Alex Dombrandt has been reaping the rewards of an outstanding season for Paul Gustard’s side and an 80-minute, earning inclusion in the last two camps following a two-try performance for an uncapped England XV side against the Barbarians earlier this month.
While Dombrandt’s positioning on the blindside against the Barbarians, with Mallinder's former Northampton charge Teimana Harrison favoured at eight, does at first dampen hopes taking up Hughes’ vacant 20 jersey, his performance in that 51-43 Twickenham victory suggests otherwise.
This season there has been a slight, yet significant, change in the way Jones has deployed Vunipola. If his RFU profile is accurate, and there’s reason to suggest it may not be, Vunipola is currently sitting at a hefty 126kg, minimum. Jones’s overwhelming reliance on Big Billy’s carrying game often came to England’s detriment between the 2016/17 and 2017/18 seasons, with regular injuries to the Saracens backrower leaving Jones's forward pack significantly underpowered; when compared to their instant success in 2016. So far in 2019, however, the carrying load has been evenly distributed between a fit-again Billy, Quins tighthead Kyle Sinckler, Saracens lock Maro Itoje and the older of the Vunipola brothers, Mako, at loosehead. The rest of the pack have certainly certainly upped their carrying duties, too.
Vunipola’s body, while still the most influential physical force in the current team, has been given a partial reprieve. He has been allowed play a larger role in the broader duties of a backrower: ruck clearouts, pullback passes, dummy support lines and, most notably, vying for turnovers at the breakdown. I made the point pre-Six Nations that Jones should look at deploying in a role closer suited to the way Wilson fulfilled during last year’s November internationals, placing less stress and importance on his carrying game so as to avoid such catastrophic disruption during his absence. Apparently, Eddie agreed. Even stopped clocks are right from time to time, I suppose.
This heightened importance on Billy’s role as a breakdown component, an underappreciated string to his bow, makes Dombrandt’s performance against the Baabaas, and current squad inclusion, all the more fitting.
While stationed on the blindside by Mallinder, the former Cardiff Met University student took up the duties Vunipola’s performs for England. Standing in the backfield in anticipation of the Barbarians’ kicks from deep to run the ball back and serving as Mallinder’s side’s most prevalent ball carrier, albeit it in a slightly different fashion to Vunipola. Vunipola’s colossal frame is better suited to a short, five-metre or less run up, bouncing, smashing and generally forcing would-be defenders backwards. In contrast, Dombrandt’s carrying places far more importance on highly intelligent running lines from deep, with impressive footwork and acceleration for a man of 193cm (6ft4”) and 120kg (18st12lbs) getting him over the gain line.
Dombrandt crossed the whitewash two times against the Barbarians earlier this month. Both scores were typical of his brand of highly-effective ball carrying. The 22-year-old’s first came in the 39th minute, a product of the Super Rugby style support line he so often runs for his club and regularly employed to great effect at Twickenham.
The Barbarians have a lineout just outside of their own 22, Wales and British and Irish Lions hooker Richard Hibbard finds former Samoan captain Chris Vui in a well-oiled, low-risk set-piece move. The Barbarians lock drops the ball down to Hibbard’s fellow Wales and Lions teammate and on the day Baaabas scrum-half Rhys Webb, again, no issue here.
England and Northampton scrum-half Alex Mitchell was a nauseatingly sharp thorn in the Barbarians’ – and Webb’s - side throughout his 58 minutes for the England XV, this time picking off an intercept from the Webb had intended to deliver to the hands Toulon wing Filipo Nakosi.
After stealing possession, Mitchell first wends his way past fellow Saint and the heaviest winger in rugby’s history, the 132kg Wallaby Taqele Naiyaravoro, then shakes off the attention of All Blacks fly-half Colin Slade before hearing the shout from Dombrandt over his shoulder, who has surged up on Mitchell's left, but has avoided the common error of running too close to Mitchell with the thought of attending a potential breakdown, placing a premium on space for the potential offload. Aware of the pace Dombrandt is running onto the ball, Mitchell obliges.
On this occasion, Mitchell may well have made his own way to the tryline, but in most incidences the scrum-half is unlikely to shake off quite so many defenders, making Dombrandt’s line far more important in 95% of these scenarios.
There were at least ten more occasions Dombrandt took the ball, or at least offered himself, with support lines running from deep, showing impressive acceleration over the final few yards. The most prevalent of which gifted Newcastle centre Johnny Williams a try just after half-time.
When it comes to shorter range efforts, Dombrandt seems well aware of the fact that he does not possess a low centre of gravity, as the Vunipola brothers do, often opting to make use of his nifty footwork and generally impressive balance and body control to slip past defenders’ attention. He used this skillset on a handful of occasions against the Barbarians, but the most obvious example came in the 74th minute when he claimed his second score.
A looping pass from Barbarians substitute fly-half Brock James that found grass before the hands of Barbarians fullback Charles Piutau allowed the uncapped Curry brother, Ben, a chance to time his tackle on the All Black fullback to perfection.
Keen to play up to his usual brand of electrifying rugby that suits the Barbarians so well, Piutau tries to pop the ball up to fellow New Zealand international Colin Slade, instead, finding England fly-half Marcus Smith.
Smith charges towards the line but is brought down an agonising one metre short by another New Zealander, Liam Messam.
Once the breakdown has been secured by a mixture of fellow Harlequin Joe Marchant and Wasps duo Josh Bassett and Tommy Taylor, Dombrandt is ready and waiting to receive the ball from acting scrum-half Curry.
The nimble backrower is met by the challenge of a fourth All Black and soon to be Wasp Malakai Fekitoa. In the same manner he evaded tackles from Kiwi flanker Steven Luatua and Argentinian Facundo Isa earlier in the match, Dombrandt spins, slipping past Fekitoa, who was likely readying himself for a barrelling carry from the tallest backrower on the field.
After being piled on by four Barbarians defenders, the familiar face of Welsh referee Nigel Owens blows to signal the try.
Hover and strike
Equally, if not more, prevalent in the Surrey-born backrower’s performance was his threat at the breakdown. While he didn’t actually claim a turnover on the day, Dombrandt regularly got his hands on the ball, forcing the Barbarians to commit numbers to the breakdown, while also slowing down the speed of Webb’s service significantly. Time is a defensive line’s best friends, and the type of ‘hover and strike' jackles legendary Wallaby openside George Smith made so popular for Bristol earlier this season is one of the best ways to create it; which is exactly what Dombrandt did for Mallinder’s one-off England side.
Take a look at the frames below from the third minute at Twickenham. Piutau’s goosestep a few frames earlier takes him to the outside shoulder of staunch Sale Sharks loosehead Ross Harrison, aiming from the gap between the frontrower and Dombrandt.
Dombrandt scrags Piutau by the shoulder while Harrison chops the legs. After showing a clear release, Dombrandt is straight onto Piutau. Unfortunately, on this occasion, the Harlequin can’t quite manoeuvre his hands past Piutau’s partial fend, giving Springbok openside Francois Louw time to clear Dombrandt off the ball.
His hover and strike at the breakdown was a serious threat for the Barbarians to contend with throughout the game.
For such a tall man, the speed of Dombrandt’s transition from tackle to jackle is impressive. The potential Japan tourist was also a constant threat in tackle situations he wasn’t personally involved in, hovering around breakdowns and searching for opportunities to latch onto the ball like a low-flying, near 19 stone, pestilential drone.
With Hughes seemingly out of the picture as we head to Japan, Dombrandt’s showings for Harlequins and the England XV as a destructive, Super Rugby style ball runner and breakdown nause may well see him on the plane to Japan as Vunipola’s understudy – and a vital energetic presence keeping the rest of the team honest. We talk about bolters a lot in rugby, but Dombrandt stands in a better chance than most of actually fulfilling the title.