Don Armand has been been called into a 32-man England squad for their final Six Nations game against Ireland. Learn more about the Exeter Chiefs back-row…
Don Armand: all you need to know about the latest player England have turned to
Successive defeats for England in Edinburgh and Paris have set alarm bells ringing. Back-row forwards Nathan Hughes and Courtney Lawes will have scans on Monday on knee injuries sustained during the 22-16 defeat to France. Yet England’s problems at competing the breakdown – which has seen them concede a flood of penalties in recent weeks – had already increased the clamour for a rethink in the back row.
Step forward Don Armand, whose sustained excellence for Exeter over the past three seasons brought him a first England cap in Argentina last summer but nothing since.
A ruptured knee ligament wrecked the first half of his 2016-17 season, but he returned to spearhead the club’s successful push to become English champions for the first time. The Exeter player was outstanding as the Chiefs overcame Wasps 23-20 in extra time in the Aviva Premiership final, becoming the first forward to win the Man of the Match award since Chris Robshaw in 2012.
Rugby World interviewed Armand in our Uncovered section before last season’s play-offs, when he told us about his rugby journey from Harare to Devon via Cape Town…
I’m Zimbabwean born and bred. Mum and Dad were farmers; they grew hypericum, an ornamental plant with red berries and small yellow flowers. They’d ship them off to Holland for distribution in Europe.
I started rugby at age six or seven. At Highlands Junior School in Harare. I played rugby, swimming, hockey, tennis – every sport possible.
My first rugby coach was Debbie Cairns, who taught me to love the game and also that you have to work hard to play rugby; it’s not a game where you can just run on the field and play.
At 13, the family moved to Pietermaritzburg in South Africa. We were forced to because of the land invasions by Robert Mugabe’s government. We got out in 2001, before it got really bad. A few farms had had shootouts and guys had been killed. When the government started blocking the roads we moved into town and Dad would drive out. But then they started beating up workers and we had to move.
The business went under. We moved to a similar climate so we could carry on farming but the crops picked up diseases and we didn’t have the money to cure them. So Dad went into fertilizer sales and Mum did office work. They got divorced when I was 18.
I’ve changed my mind on the ‘three dinner party guests’ question. I once gave Robert Mugabe as an answer so I could ask him why he does what he does. But now I’d want a better class of person! Mike Tyson was there just in case Mugabe gave the wrong answers…
Bob Skinstad would still be there. He’s also from Zimbabwe and very charismatic. He coached me at university (University of Cape Town) and I learnt a lot from him. He was very much into one-on-one, he’d make you feel valuable.
He runs the Cape Town Tens and one year the UCT and Maties (Stellenbosch University) teams were quite drunk and getting riled up in the bar. It could have got nasty but Bob got up on the table and started singing the national anthem. Everyone stood up and joined him and it completely changed the atmosphere. That’s the kind of story you tell about him.
Moving to South Africa was hard. I was stepping up to senior school (Maritzburg College) without knowing anyone. But that’s the beauty of our sport, you make friends a lot easier because you have a common ground.
I got a rugby scholarship to UCT. I met my missus (Rayanne) at school and she was dead-set on going to UCT to study chartered accountancy. It’s a prestigious university and I ended up getting a small bursary from UCT’s rugby club to study psychology and HR there.
My UCT coach, John Dobson, changed my rugby career. He organised a better bursary that enabled me to cope financially and see out my three years plus. I learnt so much from him in terms of team dynamic. The right man for the job is better than the most talented man for the job because of how important the team environment is.
They started a competition called Varsity Cup. It was played every Monday night and from there I got to play Vodacom Cup and train a pre-season with the Stormers. My lucky break came because Stormers had seven injuries, guys like Duane Vermeulen and Nick Koster, and I ended up going on tour for my Super Rugby debut in 2012, playing five minutes against Western Force.
I played in the Western Province team that won the Currie Cup for the first time since 2001. That goes well on your CV and Exeter Chiefs ended up getting hold of my agent or vice versa, I don’t really know how it happened, and I came over.
I had this image of England as raining 24/7. People in South Africa call it Mud Island. Then I arrived on a stinking hot day (in June 2013) and I was in jeans and a jersey and sweating, I was just wiping my head all the time. It’s certainly not what I thought it was.
What I like about England is that all the services run well. It’s easy to live in a community and be able to give back to it at the same time. What do I dislike? Sometimes the winters can drag on.
My all-round game has benefited at Chiefs. My confidence has grown. Everybody is expected to play, from one to 15. Wherever you are on the field in loose play you’ve got to be able to handle the ball. I’ve developed technically at the lineout and at loose-forward scrummaging. Coaches like Rob Baxter and Ali Hepher and Rob Hunter help you improve in ways you didn’t even know just by building your confidence and looking at the little things that make a big difference.
The sum of the parts makes the whole. A lot of coaches have contributed in different ways. Kevin Foote, who followed John Dobson and is now assistant coach at Western Force, taught me about passion for the game and competitiveness. He made each individual feel so important. Matt Proudfoot taught me a lot of technical aspects about lineouts.
But the most influential coach, because of the way he made sure I could stay and play my rugby at UCT, was John Dobson. He went above and beyond what a coach would normally do and he did it out of being a genuine person.
I really enjoyed last year’s England Saxons tour. We won both games and it was a great experience because it was the first international-level rugby I’d played. One player who stood out was Nick Tompkins, who has dazzling feet and made a lot of line breaks. He’s quite young still and you have to give a lot of credit to Saracens. Other teams might have thrown a youngster in and put a lot of pressure on him to perform week in, week out and it might not have been beneficial to his game. I think there’s a lot to come from him in the future. He just has to wait his turn.
My Exeter Player of the Year is Kai Horstmann. As he was boasting the other day, he hasn’t missed a training session this season. He’s quite funny – he’s got some lame jokes – and he’s a fantastic guy for the team, on and off the field. He’s always been a pretty talented player, he’s just getting the game time now to show that.
We have a different point of view on the play-offs this year. We know that if we get to the final it’s not ‘Well done, we’ve got to the final’, we want to go there and win it. Last year we were quite happy for making the final when we should have been angry that we lost. It’s been a driver for most of the season that if we get back there we want to win it.
I got married to Rayanne in the week of the LV Cup semi-final – 8 March 2014. The eighth was a special day for us because it was on our eight-year anniversary. I missed the semi-final win at Bath and only played in the final (v Northampton) because James Hanks injured his neck. We had a delayed honeymoon in Crete.
We have two kids, Miles and Lori. They’re both under three. My mum and my sister, Janine, have just moved over to live with us. Mum sold everything and has got a job and is trying to get her feet on the ground again. Janine helps out with marketing or ticketing at Chiefs, wherever they need extra hands. I’ve missed her lots because we’ve been here for three-and-a-half years without really seeing much of them.
Dad is getting involved with the Victoria Falls pigeon race competition. He’s aiming to go back to Zimbabwe to work with his brother on it. They hope to make it a million dollar prize money for the winning pigeon. Dad is going to help run the lofts.
The best place I’ve been is Lake Kariba, in Zim. You hire a double-decker boat and it’s just you and your closest friends or family. At night you sleep under the stars and by day you fish or watch game on the islands – you can go on a smaller boat and look at the elephants or rhinos or hippos. You’re not stuck in front of a TV and the weather’s always fantastic.
The Lions will beat New Zealand 2-1. New Zealand is New Zealand but I’m from England so I’m going to back the Lions. You have to support your mates.
Anyone playing at Premiership level should have aspirations to play Test rugby. That’s got to be enough to make sure you’re giving your best for the team day in, day out. If something comes of that (nationally) brilliant but if not it shouldn’t affect your performance. It’s a good motivator but Chiefs is who I’m playing for, and they’re the ones I’ve got to look after.
Man of the Match at the Premiership final
- 2003 Alex King (Wasps)
- 2004 Lawrence Dallaglio (Wasps)
- 2005 Lawrence Dallaglio (Wasps)
- 2006 Charlie Hodgson (Sale)
- 2007 Alesana Tuilagi (Leicester)
- 2008 Simon Shaw (Wasps)
- 2009 Geordan Murphy (Leicester)
- 2010 Jordan Crane (Leicester)
- 2011 Schalk Brits (Saracens)
- 2012 Chris Robshaw (Harlequins)
- 2013 Anthony Allen (Leicester)
- 2014 Stephen Myler (Northampton)
- 2015 Owen Farrell (Saracens)
- 2016 Alex Goode (Saracens)
- 2017 Don Armand (Exeter)