Coaches are often defined by their ability to successfully include ‘X-factor’ in their teams. It usually involves a measure of risk – expansion always does. X-factor represents the unknown, and that can work against you as well as it can work in your favour.
Graham Henry knew he was embracing that risk when he picked ex-league star Jason Robinson in his run-on XV for the first Test of the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia in 2001. At the time Robinson had not started a game for England, but it took only three minutes to justify Henry’s decision. The little magician from Wigan announced his arrival on the scene by skinning Wallaby full-back Chris Latham down a very narrow sideline corridor to score the opening try of the game.
The runes had been cast, and it was an auspicious new beginning for a man who had already enjoyed a glittering career in the sister code. Three months later, England coach Clive Woodward rolled the dice again, selecting Robinson for the even more pivotal role as full-back in England’s November Test against the Wallaby tourists.
As Rob Kitson put it succinctly in The Guardian: “Jason Robinson joined Clive Woodward on the high wire yesterday when the England manager named the former rugby league winger as his starting full-back against the world champions Australia at Twickenham on Saturday.”
It may seem silly in retrospect, in view of what Robinson went on to achieve in union, but at the time Woodward was taking a big gamble. The match against the world champions came hot on the heels of a 20-14 reverse in Ireland which had cost England yet another Grand Slam (after the last-round losses to Wales and Scotland in 1999 and 2000), only three weeks previously. The England head honcho was not fazed, but he was wobbling on a high wire, exposed to every cold wind and every passing media zephyr above the mundane world of received rugby wisdom.
“Where you play people like [ex-leaguer] Henry Paul or Jason Robinson is, to me, becoming a little bit immaterial,” he said.
“I am just trying to move the whole thing forward. I genuinely believe the game can be led by England, by fielding your most talented players and going for it.
“One day we’ll have the last laugh over people who fire a few arrows when you lose a game of rugby.”
Woodward’s staunch defence coach Phil Larder told me he had first seen Robinson in action for Wigan seconds versus Sheffield. He had gone to see his son Matt in action for the Eagles but he could only remember him as one of many, grasping at thin air and left in the dust-trail of the dazzling feet of ‘Billy Whizz’. By the time he signed on the dotted line for the Sale Sharks, Larder understood Robinson was the answer to the X-factor question in England’s backline: “I knew he could be the final piece of the jigsaw.”
England head coach Steve Borthwick is in much the same situation now as Woodward was back in 2001. For Jason Robinson, read Henry Arundell. Both represent the attacking conscience of English rugby. Yes, there is still work to do. There have been some accusing fingers pointed at young Arundell’s defence and work rate, just as there were at Robinson’s ball-retention at the tackle.
Robinson worked to fix it: he deliberately ran back into tackles on kick returns, rather than avoiding them, sohe could work out the nuances of the presentation of the ball in contact situations which do not exist in Lleague. Larder remembers playfully nudging the Sale coaches Steve Diamond and Jim Mallinder in the ribs: “Where’s Jason?” he would ask. “At the bottom of another ruck,” came the gloomy reply.
Likewise, Arundell will already be working on the deficits in his game with Stuart Lancaster at Racing 92 in Paris, and there can be no better teacher. The worst-case scenario is one where Arundell is picked for his country, but his talents are not utilised: against Wales in the summer warm-up at Twickenham, he had the fewest carries of any back-three player on either side (two) for the fewest metres gained (13) – but he did kick for 106 metres. Those two touches came via kick returns, and there was no attempt made to involve him from set-piece at all.
The unpleasant whiff of James Simpson-Daniel-type wastage was thick in the air. Simpson-Daniel might have achieved for England what Shane Williams did for Wales, but he was never given sufficient encouragement to do it – at least, not at national level. He only won 10 caps in a career spanning seven seasons in the post-Woodward era between 2002 and 2008.
There is little question Arundell possesses once-in-a-generation talent. French club Toulon, and in particular their full-back Aymeric Luc, must be sick of the sight of him already. Arundell first cleared his throat and announced his attacking ability in a European club match between Les Toulonnais and London Irish:
That ‘try from the end of the earth’ unquestionably works best with empathetic French television commentary: ‘Attention à ce garçon!’ Poor Luc was left looking like a slow cart-horse on the final tackle attempt, and he is no such thing.
I first came across Arundell while preparing for Leinster’s away quarter-final against the Leicester Tigers in the 2021-22 European Champions Cup. One of the games which really made me sit up and take notice was London Irish’s Premiership match versus the Tigers at Welford Road. Like any good Steve Borthwick side, Leicester tended to kick the ball away around 35 times per game (more than anyone else in their domestic league), but Irish had just the secret weapon to run it back at them in the shape of young Henry.
Arundell’s bravura performance sparked from the opening whistle.
It’s an accurate cross-field kick, with the landing zone pitched no more than one metre from the three closest Leicester chasers, but Arundell’s exceptional first step still finds space down the 5m corridor.
The coup de grâce occurred just after half-time.
A magical first stride is enough to beat Harry Potter, who is once again on top of the receiver, and in position A1 on chase when the ball arrives. A neat interchange of passes between Arundell and Ollie Hassell-Collins down the short-side does the rest.
It is not just Arundell’s running game you need to worry about.
The 50/22 rule was not current at the time the game was played, but Arundell’s boot has ample to power to create the kick-turnover from a central position anywhere outside his own 30m line. That creates doubts about positioning for the backfield – do they compress towards the defensive line, or stand deep and wide to cut off the possibility of kicks to the corner flag?
Toulon (and Aymeric Luc) were again on the receiving end from the youngster in the recent Top 14 match against Racing 92. One of Arundell’s chief ‘hidden assets’ is the leg strength to run inside and outside, functioning as either a wing or as an outside centre.
As Racing full-back Max Spring sweeps back to the short-side after a midfield punch from lineout, Arundell is effectively playing as a 13 with two men outside him.
He can run inside or he can run outside, it makes no difference. It is not too hard to picture other ways in which this ability could be profitably employed, and there is every likelihood that Arundell could turn into a highly-effective halfback-trailer around the ruck fringes, like Mark Telea of the Blues and the All Blacks.
There is no dispute about his fast leg cadence, and his sheer speed to the corner flag.
Toulon full-back Luc is no slouch, but Arundell just moves through the gears so smoothly it appears the Frenchman is stuck in concrete.
Towards the end of the game, another long-range Racing attack gave Henry Arundell two opportunities within the same passage of play to dissect the defensive cover.
After breaking from deep inside his own 22 on the counter, Racing play-maker Tristan Tedder unaccountably denies the English flyer a run at Luc in the first instance, but he does not make the same mistake when the opportunity presents itself for a second time. Arundell doesn’t need an overlap, just give him the one-on-one, and he will turn water into wine.
If Steve Borthwick can screw his courage to the sticking point, enough to ask the same X-factor question as Clive Woodward in 2001, he will soon discover Arundell can be every inch the answer Robinson turned out to be back in the day. He will see another player who is the attacking conscience of English rugby, standing right in front of him.
However much he trusts his data-bank of statistical information, sooner or later ‘Borthers’ will find himself wobbling on the same high-wire as England’s only World Cup-winning coach: the selection requirement to include a project-player, a young man whose potential temporarily exceeds his achievements. The more pivotal that young man’s role and the earlier his exposure, the better he will be. One day Steve Borthwick, like Woodward, may then enjoy “the last laugh over people who fire a few arrows when you lose a game of rugby.”