It took time for the 6ft 10in identical twins to rise to the top, but Richie and Rory Arnold are now soaring in France
LIFE AT the sugar mill was, well, pretty sweet. “Cruisey” is, in fact, how Richie Arnold describes the laid-back life of driving loaders in New South Wales. He had, by his own admission, some leeway with the company.
It helped that his identical twin brother, Rory, had gone on to play at the very highest level of Australian rugby having come through the same mill. So as Richie cut out early some days to traipse off to train or play, everyone hoped they would soon get to boast about another famous former employee.
“There are probably tougher gigs!” the 6ft 10in second-row tells Rugby World. “When I started playing in Queensland, I’d have to knock off at the mill early to go up to footy. They were really good, though. They let me chase the dream.”
That was not elite rugby. Richie was, you could say, a late bloomer. Though it might be more accurate to call him a hostage to circumstance. It’s the same for so many would-be rugby stars. It’s beautiful, if all too rare, to see such players finally get there, to make it.
Richie’s was an ever-so-slightly different path to twin Rory’s – the latter plucked from mill life himself, embraced by the Brumbies. And while he showed up well there by 2015, fellow lock Richie had to go the circuitous route to meet his twin in Canberra in 2018. He went from trotting out for country side The Gentlemen of Murwillumbah to the Premier grades in Queensland before the pro game became an option for him.
You would think that this pair, who are now enjoying life in Toulouse together, would have played a lot of rugby side by side. But barring games in the centres in local rugby league matches, as “these tall, skinny kids at the U13s”, the brothers had to bide their time.
“We played together when we were younger, but the only pro team we were at together (before Toulouse) was at the Brumbies.” Richie says. “And I didn’t really get many minutes with him but it was a cool experience to have him there.
“I was a few years later, to track to professional rugby, than my brother. I had a few more injuries, I had a crook shoulder and in Australia I didn’t really have the money straightaway to pay for surgery. So I went onto a waiting list. That took a good year – it took a while.
“Then when I did get to Perth with the Western Force, my first year was spent with recurring injuries. My body wasn’t used to the load of being a full-time pro. I was pretty underdone, pretty overweight, not strong enough.
“My second year with the Force was pretty good, then we got cut from Super Rugby. To be honest, I maybe only got used to it all when I got to Canberra. I had always had niggles here and there but my body stopped breaking down.”
In coming through a little slower, what Richie did get to see, he says, is what awaits all pro players at the other end. He has seen the real world and it is unlikely to be a shock going back.
Mind you, when we say that Rory Arnold was well ahead of his brother, he still only made his pro debut at 24, he points out.
“It just makes you think how lucky we are to do what we do for a so-called job,” Rory reflects. “You travel the world and you’re getting paid to stay fit.
“Because we started later, it just gives you that extra respect for what you do. You see a lot of the players, they come out of school now, directly into contracts or academy teams and when they finish it’s a big shock for them because it’s not an easy transition.”
Ask the pair what sets them apart as players and Richie is quick to point out Rory’s Wallabies qualities, his comfort at the top level, laughing that, “I bounce things off him but there are not many questions he asks me!” But the Arnold brother with 26 Test caps offers a different perspective. He believes that time at the elite furnace has taught him to value tight-five work – what he calls the ‘s**tters’ – like hitting rucks and diving for balls. Richie, he says, is better with a much looser, running style of rugby.
While the pair are united in France now, though, there is an element of missed crossings and fortuitous arrivals in the Arnold family story, too. Big moves came as Richie was playing in Japan and Rory was planning for his professional life after the Rugby World Cup, held in the very same country.
Rory explains: “I signed with Toulouse at the end of 2018, for (the season) after the Rugby World Cup. And Richie was in Japan (with Yamaha Júbilo). That time Japan’s season finished really early, and he got a medical joker with Toulouse, with those in Japan happy for him to go.
“So he got to Toulouse before I did. They went on an amazing run and he ended up winning the Top 14 with them! I was blown away with that.
“He was actually a medical joker for me. So when I arrived after the World Cup, he left to go back to Japan. It was pretty much that I got here and spent a week with him and then he left again.
“When I came to Toulouse I hoped we could go back to back and win it again, but obviously it wasn’t to be with Covid. But now he’s back here as well and we’re together, so to do it again, together, would be pretty special.”
It reads almost like one of those bad sitcom episodes where one person pretends to be two brothers – never in the same place at the same time. Rory signed for Toulouse but while he was prowling around Japan in green and gold, brother Richie took to Toulouse, won a title, then headed back to Yamaha just as his twin was France-bound.
“My Japanese club were pretty good letting me go back over again,” Richie adds. “Toulouse also sent over two of their espoir players, two young locks, to experience Japanese rugby and whatnot.
“Then signing full-time with Toulouse for this season was a pretty easy decision. When I first came for a few months I had a really good time and we ended up winning the Top 14. When Toulouse made the offer, by that time I knew that Rory was going to be there, so it was an awesome opportunity to go and play with my brother again.
“We’re pretty tight. We speak probably every day. We’re pretty close as twins, get under each other’s skin quite easy.
“It’s funny being a twin brother but also playing in the same position, as locks. Being in the same team, there are things you’d say to your team-mates and then there are things we say to each other that you definitely wouldn’t say to your other team-mates! You don’t want to seem harsh but you will pull him up for something. There is no filter between us two, so it is pretty funny looking at that aspect of things.”
The Arnolds will have two seasons together in Toulouse, at least. Offering his take on finally being able to play good stints together, Rory adds: “Mum is happy and the family are happy we’re together. Richie has got two kids. A lot of times with rugby your family is here, your family is there and you sort of miss that side of life, so it’s really good. I’m really happy I get to share that with him.
“We were two of four boys and one girl and where we’re from in Australia, it’s all rugby league. So we all loved league and there was also always plenty of games of backyard cricket. We were quite sporty growing up. We were always running around, playing footy, and the rivalry was always big in the backyard. Me and Richie are the youngest – the youngest and tallest!”
In strange times, an old season was finishing in England while the French had just begun a fresh on, having scrapped the last season. And in Europe, the two overlapped.
Domestically this meant Toulouse could not go back-to-back for titles, but according to Rory, last term was a bit of a struggle as the French giants often lost a clutch of stars to the national team. So some time off to refresh the group has been invaluable for le rouge et noir.
As Rory concludes: “The key this season is getting back on the same page, playing as a group and really enjoying rugby again. Because in the crazy times we are all living in these days, nothing’s for granted.”
The Toulousain way of playing is fun anyway. But how sweet it will be to have your brother along for the ride too.
This article originally appeared in the November 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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