Chandler Cunningham-South Exclusive: I will be forever grateful to London Irish but now there is a sense of relief

Chandler Cunningham-South will be joining Harlequins ahead of the 2023-24 season
©RFU Collection via Getty

"I think everyone was hopeful. I think most people were hopeful until that last extension of the deadline and then it was a bit like; 'Yeah, ok, let's prepare for the worst now.'"

Chandler Cunningham-South is describing how the last couple of months have been for him.

Usually, a breakthrough season like the one the 20-year-old experienced in 2022-23 is worth remembering but sadly for the talented youngster, you wouldn't have any complaints if he discarded it from his mind.

The suspension of London Irish from the Premiership - and their resulting administration - meant Cunningham-South's time as an Exile officially came to an end at the start of June.

"No one wants a club to go into administration because it's just a horrible thing," he reflects. "Everyone was just very hopeful that we [London Irish] would continue and we would get these new investors.

"No one at the club knew what was going on. That made it hard because obviously everyone was just hopeful and wanting the best outcome but nobody really knew and that was so hard for us all."

When reports of London Irish's potential financial crisis first emerged back in March, alarm bells started to ring. The collapses of Worcester and Wasps earlier in the season only heightened the anxiety around the story and like the two Midlands clubs, the Exiles unfortunately went the same way.

It meant emerging talents such as Cunningham-South, Tom Pearson, Henry Arundell et al were left without a club, a club which would have harboured some strong ambitions for 2023-24 given the quality they had within their ranks and the style of rugby they were playing.

Finishing just outside the top four and with a squad stacked with enthusiasm and energy, on the pitch, things were looking promising for Irish and Cunningham-South was very much part of it all.

"I feel like there was potentially something sort of brewing there with a very young, very talented core group," he says.

Cunningham-South made 19 appearances in the Premiership and played in all four of Irish's Heineken Champions Cup pool matches last season. The England U20s international - who grew up in New Zealand - certainly burst onto the scene and his high-octane, explosive performances caught the eye.

It was clear he was enjoying his rugby, which is why having his "home from home" taken away from him was difficult for the forward to digest.

"It [London Irish] was a pretty special place," Cunningham-South says. "For me coming from New Zealand [in 2022], they made me feel very comfortable and obviously progressed my game dramatically.

"That was my first real step into professional rugby and they've helped me out a lot and definitely improved my game. The coaches there are amazing. All the staff and the players as well are all so helpful. I am grateful to them.

"They gave me my opportunity and I tried to grab it with both hands. There were a few bumps along the road but they always helped me to get better, worked on things with me. They backed me a lot."

As we chat over the phone, Cunningham-South's gratitude towards London Irish is clear, and that was also evident on Thursday morning when it was announced that the promising youngster had found a new club.

Harlequins will be his home for next season but the majority of his quotes in the club's press release were centred around his time at Irish: "Obviously it has been a very tough few weeks with Irish and I will be forever grateful to them," Cunningham-South tells TRU.

"The uncertainty around it, though, has been tough but also it is now kind of like a sense of relief to have my new club sorted. Not knowing what you're doing and being jobless is pretty tough so a sense of relief and excitement for a new journey."

A spurt of ex-London Irish players also had their moves confirmed this week with Ollie Hoskins (Saracens) and Rory Jennings (Newcastle Falcons) staying in the Premiership, Paddy Jackson heading to Lyon while Lovejoy Chawatama and Will Joseph will be joining Cunningham-South at Quins.

"I am happy and relieved that most people are finding new teams so they can start their new ventures," Cunningham-South adds. "I am just hoping that everyone can just get themselves sorted so they know what they are doing with their futures."

And for Cunningham-South, as well as Chawatama and Joseph, does Quins seem like the perfect fit for the former Exiles given the brand of rugby London Irish played?

"The style of rugby that we played was exciting and I suppose that's why Quins will be an easier transition because the sort of style of rugby they play is very exciting.

"I feel like I can fit into the way they play very well and bring some of my things and learn off the amazing talent they have there. Hopefully, big things can come from Harlequins next season with the strong team and coaching staff they have.

"They do also have a good young group of boys in that team that are obviously playing very well. They've got a few new signings to add to that so it is going to be good."

Having the familiar faces of Chawatama and Joseph around him at Quins will help Cunningham-South adjust to his new environment while the 20-year-old also lived with the latter when they were both at Irish.

"I swear he [Joseph] is following me!" laughs Cunningham-South. "Now that he has followed me to Harlequins, I might have to put up with him again!"

With all that has happened surrounding London Irish, Cunningham-South admits he is currently "homeless" and jokes that his house-hunting duties will now have to fit in and around the upcoming World U20s Championships.

Cunningham-South is chatting to Talking Rugby Union from South Africa ahead of England's opener against Ireland on Saturday lunchtime, with Mark Mapletoft's side also drawn alongside second seeds Australia as well as Fiji in Pool B.

This is Cunningham-South's second visit to the 'Rainbow Nation' in six months having travelled to Cape Town with London Irish to take on the Stormers in the Heineken Champions Cup back in December.

"I have got the rundown on it [Cape Town] so I am the tour guide now," the England U20s forward chuckles. "I am telling all the boys where to go but they don't listen to me though!

"We have been to Table Mountain. That was good. We went down to Harbourside. I had to show the boys around there because I'd already been! I went and got my dreads done today [Thursday]. I had to get them retwisted so had a walk into the city and got that done. I like it here!"

England - and Cunningham-South - will be hoping their stay in South Africa goes on for as long as possible but with tough assignments against U20 Six Nations Gram Slam winners Ireland and the Junior Wallabies to come, those fixtures may dictate how their competition plays out.

For Cunningham-South, he has become somewhat of a regular feature in the U20s side having played in both the 2022 and 2023 Six Nations under former coach Alan Dickens.

Current boss Mapletoft was only appointed back in May so with a new regime and the return of the World U20s Championships for the first time in four years, what are Cunningham-South's feelings ahead of the tournament?

"Firstly, I really get on with Alan Dickens on a personal level as well as a coaching level," he says. "He gave me my shot when I first came over to England so I have got a lot to thank that guy for.

"Mark is building from what Dicko was trying to build towards and the goals are the same; to win the U20s World Cup. I suppose Saturday [v Ireland] is going to be a big one to start with. We have just been focusing on Ireland for this week and that's the first step. Hopefully, we have got what it takes."

On a personal level, the World U20s Championships can be a real starting point for players who want to break into the international senior set-ups of their respective countries.

The likes of Maro Itoje, Jamie George, Owen Farrell, and Henry Slade - to name but a few - all represented England U20s on the world stage and Cunningham-South will do the same over the next few weeks.

In truth, based on his performances for London Irish last term, the youngster may already be in the conversation for Steve Borthwick's World Cup squad as a potential bolter but given what Cunningham-South has experienced over the last 12 months, his level-headed mindset to only focus on the short-term seems like a very sensible approach for one of England's brightest emerging talents.

"It is very exciting to be playing in a U20s World Cup because it hasn't happened for a very long time. All the best young talent in the world is here so it will be good to go up against them and see what we can do.

"I want to try and perform, and it will be great to do that in this competition before going to Quins and helping the team. Playing international rugby is at the back of every rugby player's head and it is a dream for everyone so I will just focus on this 20s campaign for now and sort of keep working hard at Quins and hopefully one day it may happen."

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