Alex Dombrandt: ‘We’re under no illusions that it’s going to be a tough challenge’

Alex Dombrandt studied at Cardiff Met before signing with Harlequins in 2018

After making his name playing for Cardiff Met RFC, this Saturday will see Alex Dombrandt play at the Principality Stadium for the first time in his career.

Returning to the Welsh capital in his third consecutive start in an England shirt, the 25-year-old’s only experiences of the Welsh national stadium was as a fan at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

However, this return to the city where the No. 8 starred in BUCS Super Rugby, captained the team to a BUCS Super Rugby final and even gained Wales U20 honours may not be so welcoming.

At the best of times, Cardiff provides an intimidating place for away teams to visit, and this weekend will be no different. 

It is more than possible that the supporters will be louder than ever after learning the fixture would be taking place as the threat of strike action from the Wales squad hung over the fixture.

Following a poor start to the Guinness Six Nations, Wales sit at the foot of the standings after heavy defeats to Ireland and Scotland. 

Add to that the overall uncertainty about this fixture and a midweek meeting with Welsh Rugby Union officials to decide the immediate future of professional rugby in the country, preparation for Warren Gatland’s side has been far from ideal.

“Yeah, I guess,” Dombrandt said when asked if it was a good time to be playing Wales. “It’s a tough time for them and you empathise with everything that’s going on.

“Quite often when things are going on off the pitch that can galvanise a team. We’re under no illusions that it’s going to be a tough challenge.

“They’ve got real quality throughout their team, and we know we’re going to have to be at our best.”

It is not as though Dombrandt is not unfamiliar with raucous crowds. At Cardiff Met the Ultras, who line the pathway to Rugby 1 at the Cyncoed Campus, are their own attraction and created one of the most unique environments in university rugby.

“Because I went to Cardiff Met, they were all rooting for you,” Dombrandt said. “Like I said previously, they love their rugby up there. 

“I have experienced what it is like in a match day in Cardiff. It’s crazy. It’s carnage and there are the games you want to be involved in.

“The atmosphere is going to be electric; it’s going to be loud. I was thinking about it earlier this week, we had to play games in Covid with no crowds and you didn’t want that. 

“These are the games you want to be involved in and it is about embracing that.”

In years gone by we have all heard about how the Principality is one of the loudest in rugby. In 2015, Press Association Sport revealed that the venues 92.0decibels average was significantly higher than any other Six Nation venue.

James Haskell told TRU in 2019 about how playing at the venue can make it feel like there is “someone pushing down on you”, while Steve Borthwick described the fixture as being “steeped in history” on Thursday afternoon when unveiling his matchday 23 for the clash.

Players have spoken in the past about how the atmosphere can make players become shadows of themselves, with Dombrandt of the mind that by keeping on task England can battle through anything the crowd can throw at them.

“I guess just sticking to the game plan, sticking to the process,” Dombrandt said. “Mistakes will happen, that’s just the nature of rugby.

“It’s all about getting stuck into the next thing and going back to what we know works for us and don’t go into our shell; bring out your personality because you’re in the team for a reason. So bring that out.”

Playing in his own style is what helped Dombrandt into the England squad in the first place. Virtually since breaking into the Harlequins squad all the way back in 2018, people have felt that back-row was warranting of England selection.

A player with a complete skill set, the 25-year-old is an entertainer in every sense of the word. Able to unpick defences thanks to his offloading game and connection with Harlequins fly-half Marcus Smith, it has propelled him to international rugby.

Under Eddie Jones, selection was hard to come by. Making his debut in 2021 against Canada, it would take until the Six Nations to get a first start. 

Playing in back-to-back wins over Italy and Wales, that tournament would be his final involvement with the national side until Steve Borthwick was installed as England head coach. 

In part due to injury, as we move into the third round of this season’s Six Nations, and with a Rugby World Cup on the horizon, Dombrandt has been a mainstay in the England starting XV.

It is a consistency the former John Fisher School pupil has never had before at Test level.

“Loving it,” Dombrandt said. 

“I’m just really enjoying my rugby at the moment. When you get into a rhythm of playing games that’s when you feel like you’re playing your best.

“It’s quite hard when you’re out of the mix for a while. Really enjoying being back in the environment and working hard every day to improve my game and looking forward to the weekend.”

For the visit of England, Wales have selected an experienced side. That would in part be because of their disjointed preparation, but also their disappointing games so far this year.

While Wales will be hoping to arrest their slide, England will be looking to build on their win against Italy two weekends ago, their first under Borthwick.

Talking about Wales with Dombrandt before he had to sprint to the team bus, the topic consistently returned to that crowd.

Over 70,000 fans will be in the Principality, the majority calling for English heads to roll. England will largely be looking to their preparation as the way to silence the crowd.

“When the atmosphere is as loud as it can be when they’re on top, if the crowd are quiet or not as loud as they usually are, then it means you’re usually doing something right,” Dombrandt said.

“So the more we can nullify their threats and be on top, you’d like to think that maybe they’ll be a bit quieter.”