He’s one of the most electrifying talents in the world game and 2023 will be remembered as a whirlwind year for so many reasons – this is what happened when we met Henry Arundell
There’s a multiverse dimension out there somewhere in which Henry Arundell is not a defence-dizzying international outside back, but rather standing at the foot of the corporate ladder. Had he leapt at another chance, maybe things would be very different.
As he explains to Rugby World in this exclusive interview, he’d tried the university thing, briefly taking history at UCL, but he couldn’t balance it with rugby commitments at London Irish. So he switched to an Open University course. But there was one other way.
“I had options to possibly get a scholarship to go to America,” he says. “Because they want the game to grow. There was a genuine conversation of: ‘Is that an option you should take?’ If you go to an Ivy League university and play rugby, you get your fees paid for, you get tuition at one of the biggest universities in the world. Maybe you finish uni and you get an incredible job somewhere. You could become the next entrepreneur. But it’s kind of like, hmm…
“That was never my dream. As a child it was always to be a professional rugby player. To play for England. Play for the Lions. Play at World Cups. That kind of thing. So I knew that if I’d ever done that other side of things, there would always have been something inside of me thinking I cheated myself, that I didn’t try it, that I didn’t give it a go.”
The daydream of this only really happens because we ask him what life might be like had he seen what was behind door number two, rather than the one he chose to run through. We can speculate all we want, but the reality has already been a lot of fun.
The emergence of Henry Arundell
Cast your mind back to May 2022 and his end-of-the-earth try against Toulon – the one that got rugby fans sitting up. It felt like we were all there for the start of something special. Having been on for barely a minute, he was flung a ball just a hop from his own try-line.
By the time he had run the slalom to the halfway, he’d gone past four defenders. French nine Baptiste Serin tried to go for him again and the little slow-and-go move sent him skidding. Another feint as if he’d cut inside, then he was scampering round the outside to finish in the corner. He went 98m.
In an instant he had put his name down for every future try compilation video to be loaded into YouTube. But that first pro season was littered with fine moments – tries against Leicester, one began with a game-stopping step, or a chip and regather for another. An even better chip, regather and spin away from contact came against Wasps.
That summer, Eddie Jones called him up to England for the tour of Australia. In his first match, with his first touch, he got the ball out wide. After a sharp push off his left, Noah Lolesio and Andrew Kellaway converged on him, only to be sloughed off as the youngster put on the power. A step off his right and James O’Connor couldn’t even get near the concept of Arundell, let alone grasp the man. Try.
But if he was catching opposition unawares, Arundell was just as shocked. He tells us of that first season: “I never even dreamt of a start like that, of starting my career like that. And it’s really weird when it becomes the norm very quickly, and then you’ve got to start appreciating it more. It’s kind of a balance between: you’ve got to carry on and you’ve got to keep getting better, but you can’t just let that go by. Because if you just let it go by, then you’re not going to enjoy life when special moments like that happen.”
The tries in that first season were sensational. We cannot begin to relate to what scoring one of those feels like. Put in similar scenarios, in-head alarm bells are sure to be set off. So what is it like for him when in the moment?
“It was probably in my debut when I caught a high ball, stepped, broke down the wing and went 30 metres. When it finished I was like, ‘What the hell just happened? I wasn’t expecting to do that.’ I guess those little moments build up your confidence.
“Then eventually you get big opportunities. That Toulon moment was massive. The same for the England debut. Sure, the more you do it the more there’s muscle memory, but you do have this out-of-body experience. Especially with that England try. It was crazy.
“It took a while to actually take that in, after the game. I have now and I think with those moments you have to accept it, be really happy with it. But even with the bad moments, accept those…”
He discusses what an injury-hampered second season was like. How when he did play there were inevitably fewer balls kicked his way. There was more attention from the likes of us too, and the fans. There was the England game against France in the Six Nations when it felt like anything that can go wrong did, not that it was anyone’s fault. And the harsher side of demand for results, in England, came into focus that day.
Henry Arundell on loss of London Irish
But there is no avoiding the biggest recent wrench. The loss of London Irish.
“It starts off with shock, really,” he begins on finding out London Irish, as he knew them, were done. “I couldn’t believe it actually got to that point where we were in the same scenario as Wasps and Worcester – I never believed it’d actually get to that point.
“There had been rumours out there earlier in the season about us. And we’d been given so many assurances by ownership and management that, you know, we’d be absolutely fine. So it was a shock.
“Then there was a bit of anger towards the owner (Mick Crossan). He may have done what he’d done previously, in raising the club (up again), but it felt like he gave up on us. And then, obviously, there was sadness for a lot of the lads.
“I’m very lucky, in the position I am, that I’ve managed to find a club. And there are some lads who’ve managed to find clubs quickly, but there are a lot of boys, and staff members, where it’s not as easy and they’re going to struggle to match the opportunity and money they probably had at London Irish.
“That group of players was an incredible group. Such incredible men. It was great playing with them on the pitch but off it, it was such an incredible environment to be part of. A lot of those lads will be friends for life, and whilst some of them have found jobs quickly, it’s heartbreaking to see that for some of them it may be the end of their careers, because of the way we have been treated. English rugby’s not in a great state at the moment with the market and the current state of the league. Hopefully that improves because it’s unfair on players from all three clubs that went down.
“But it’s the club that made me. And while there’s a feeling of disappointment and anger towards how it ended, I would never be where I am now and with the opportunity I have now without a 13-year-old boy going through the academy. And then they eventually gave me my professional debut and that support to make my dreams come true, to be playing in the Premiership and to be playing for England, playing in the Six Nations. And I will always be grateful for that. The players, the coaches and staff – it’s mainly those individuals who are part of that whole process that I’m the most grateful to, rather than the people who own the club and how they ran it.
“To the fans as well, it is such a sad time. Because as players we can go to multiple clubs across our careers and our loyalties can change. Whereas for a lot of them, London Irish has been a massive part of their life. It was meant to be the 125th year of the club as well, that’s another sad point. You see a lot of fans who were incredible supporters to all of us, and we had an invite into a great family that we called the Exile Nation, and for a lot of them now they will never have that same attachment to a sports team again.
“I can’t speak on behalf of them, but I can imagine that it’s a very sad time to see what was looking like a really promising and incredible future for the club just go to waste in such a selfish way.”
The making of Henry Arundell
Given the talent and the attitude, Henry Arundell was always going to be in demand after the demise of Irish. A move to Paris with Racing 92, to play under Stuart Lancaster, is quite the change – a potentially thrilling one, for sure. But with two parents who served in the army, moving around was part of the Arundell family’s life when Henry was young. His older brother and sister saw Northern Ireland and Cyprus a few times, the latter being where Henry was born. There were stints in Edinburgh and in Pennsylvania before a move back to England when Arundell was seven.
That’s when rugby took hold, really. On this, Arundell says: “I started when we came back. My dad (Ralph) had played rugby at school, and my brother (Jack) took it a bit more seriously. He was through Gloucester’s academy and eventually played Gloucester U19s, but he never really had the ambition to do it as a career. He was very good at other sports and there was no desire to play for England or that kind of thing. He was good, kept playing, had fun doing it.
“So I eventually joined a club when we came back to the UK, joining Trowbridge, which was very local – still local, in fact, to where my mum is in Bradford-on-Avon. I actually joined Bradford’s rugby club and was there from U10s until eventually leaving for North London.”
It was after he went from Beechen Cliff School to Harrow on a scholarship at 13 that his affinity with London Irish began, in the academy. It didn’t take long to hear growing noises about this kid who could do special things with a ball in his hands.
Jonathan Fisher, most recently the academy forwards coach, was a big figure in bringing a number of exciting youngsters through Irish’s fabled system. And he has witnessed first-hand all of Arundell’s qualities.
“A bit of insight here,” Fisher starts. “In the 2018-19 season, when we won the U18 league, Henry had some exceptional performances across that campaign. He did a lot of things that we’ve now seen him do on the senior stage. And it was around that time that Eddie (Jones) would be trying to get him in to train with England, purely because of the talent and pace.
“It wouldn’t have been my decision to make at the time but I think the consensus from people involved in the pathway was very much that this might not be the best thing for him at that stage. And then he had a significant hamstring injury towards the back end of that U18 year. I think what that set in motion was a real appreciation of the importance of the diligence and the care he needs to take as an athlete, and how he applies himself in that sense.
“We were trying to promote Henry from a very young age. When he was 15 he was playing in our U18 team. I think he was apprehensive, to be think, maybe how apprehensive he was just meant as soon as he got the ball he was going nowhere near anyone, which kind of worked out in our favour!
“One thing you can’t disregard is the quality of athlete he is. The muscularity that he has, the athleticism he has possessed from such a young age. Then you couple with that the mentality.
“The other aspect I will add on him is that there’s a real level of composure there, a maturity for such a young man. Obviously he’s going to have challenges, being the superstar that he is at a young age, but I think he’s got the right people around him and he’s very level-headed himself. I think the reason that he was able to transfer so quickly is one, he is well beyond his years, in terms of the the athlete that he is.
“And secondly he’s very measured. He won’t be too high, won’t be too low. Certainly when he’s on the field. And I think that just allows him to play in the right headspace where he can execute.”
Young talents out of London Irish
There certainly is something special about the cohort of attacking threats to come out of the Irish system, and Henry Arundell pays tribute to coaches like Fisher for what he has done with players like Chandler Cunningham-South.
He also makes a point of championing coach James Lightfoot Brown for what he’s done to bring on electric back-line talent, telling us that he is “genuinely the best coach I’ve ever worked with”. According to the flyer, him, Ben Loader, Ollie Hassell-Collins, Will Joseph and Tom Parton all rose that bit higher thanks to the former sevens cap, who is now part of the Gloucester coaching ticket.
Bringing through such a group is no fluke either, says Arundell, adding that it comes from “genuine commitment to a group of lads, where the full desire is ‘I’m going to make you into the best players in the world.’ And obviously that’s not happened yet, but any time we’d review anything there was still that ambition of ‘Is this what the best player in the world should be doing?’”
With hard graft going in now, the goal is to see Arundell on the fields of France before his big club move. The World Cup is coming and he would relish the chance. But let’s focus on the fun side of this game.
Arundell on his own game
It’s a subject matter Arundell has hinted at already. How he feels about his own game, being present while it’s all going on, is something he’s committed a bit of thought to. And after such a big change in circumstance recently, it’s worth airing as well.
Because as we look ahead to the rugby future, there’s something of that giddy beginning worth keeping a hold of. As Arundell tells us: “People know there are the obvious goals that I’ve written down before, of making a World Cup, going on a Lions tour, you want to win the Premiership, that kind of thing; the external stuff you see.
“But something I’ve learnt this year is to genuinely, actually feel happy about how I’m playing. Actually knowing I’m not just forcing a way to play because someone wants me to play it. Yes, you have to fit into a system but sometimes you’re forcing it too much, to the point where you don’t feel like you are yourself anymore, and that’s where I’d get frustrated. Because you would be going, ‘Yes, that season looks great on paper, but I know I haven’t done exactly what I want to do and haven’t played the way I want to play and be the type of player I want to be’.
“It’s more about me sticking to my guns, regardless of what happens. That would give me satisfaction, knowing I actually did things I wanted to do, and played the way I wanted to play.”
Certainly that pledge makes sense. His style of rugby gets fans out of their seats. He is an escape artist. But more so than that, good rugby is about utilising what you have, rather than praying you can squeeze something different out of your players. Asking Arundell to conform totally to some heavily-scripted, risk-averse game is like trying to use Colgate as shower gel.
Taking inspiration from US sports
As we talk of expression, Henry Arundell also brings up the idea of selling the sport and the notion of enticing that next generation. Some of us grew up in the time when you had to phone a landline to arrange to meet your pals in town, and hope that they’d show up in the right spot. Today we can communicate with a whole world. To grow a sport is about cutting through the noise. As someone born in 2002, an elite athlete no less, Arundell’s perspective would be interesting. And he’s looking towards the Atlantic.
“I’m a big fan of American sports, that’s probably why I reference them quite a lot. They’ve taken social media well, in terms of all the players buying into it.
“Everything is on social media now. Whereas rugby is still in that kind of transition period where you’ve got the old guard and the new guard where, if you’re doing social media stuff that’s kind of you putting yourself out there, it’s too much, it’s not humble.
“There’s also the side where you have to do this now if you want to grow rugby, grow the brand. Don’t get me wrong, I still get moments when I look at social media and think ‘What’s this guy doing? Stop that.’ But then you think, if LeBron James was doing that, I’d go, ‘That’s cool!’ It’s just probably because of the culture that’s still in rugby.
“I think rugby needs it more. Maybe there needs to be more support… Although, I dunno. You can’t really educate it, the bad side of social media. It’s something you just have to experience and then eventually realise what it’s actually like and that you have to take everything with a pinch of salt when you see it.
“But if you’re going to appeal to a new generation, they’re all on TikTok or Instagram. None of them are on Twitter or Facebook. So it’s growing that side, and then it’s not belittling people who are trying to be different.
“There’s a side of rugby where you don’t put your head above the canopy. In your first year you come in and have your head down, you work hard. It’s very good that’s still a thing, because it keeps everyone humble. But then if it becomes a culture of when you post something online… Okay, sometimes it’s funny when someone takes the piss. But if it’s constant, you’ll wonder what’s the point in trying to do this. But if you’re not creating a celebrity-type status of rugby players, you’re not going to grow it. Like, the NRL in Australia, they are all celebrities. Obviously the sport make it a spectacle, like the NFL, where it’s a day out of entertainment, not just the rugby. Like State of Origin, they are so good at that.
“You have to promote it. I heard Eddie Hearn say on a podcast, why would you not sell rugby like you do a fight?
“That’s something Eddie Jones was good at – and still is. He says stuff in the media that’s controversial and it gets people riled up, but that keeps people engaged. The issue is when you get players and sometimes coaches going, ‘You know, we wish them all the best, they’re a great team.’ That’s just the usual.”
That doesn’t mean he wants to see someone harangued, publicly, ahead of their next game. No pros want to throw insults at a fellow pro. This is merely pointing out that the competition is real, and healthy, and that honestly reflecting desire to win could be fun to see.
We know in so many other sports that the inherent drama is heightened by the rivalries, too. And it also ties into what Arundell says about an eco-system where athletes, by being themselves, could be the best salespeople for the sport. We’d also underline that this happens not by dragging them through staged or corporatised set-pieces online, but by putting out honest, organic expression. Of course, for Arundell if it’s just about what he puts on the park, super. In the coming months, French fans are in for a treat.
In another universe, he could have been Stateside. Hank has a ring to it. Hey, he could be an adopted Henri soon enough. But the way Arundell plays the game is very much, refreshingly, Henry.
This feature with Henry Arundell first appeared in Rugby World magazine in July 2023.
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