Each week brings a new impressive attempt from Henry Arundell, who has had a fantastic start with Racing 92 in Paris. Despite only appearing in three games, one of which as a substitute, Arundell has already demonstrated to Racing fans what many England supporters already knew – when given the ball, the 21-year-old will score tries.
He currently has four goals for his recent team, including an impressive three goals in his first game. It seems evident that Arundell has adjusted well to a team that enjoys putting on a spectacular performance in their home arena, La Defense Arena. Stuart Lancaster was pleased to have Siya Kolisi back on his team in their 32-10 victory over La Rochelle on Sunday night, adding even more star power. It is clear that both English players are thriving in Paris.
The Rugby Football Union will be closely monitoring Arundell’s progress for Racing, as they have utilized their exceptional circumstances loophole to allow him to participate in the Six Nations for England.
He is expected to join the summer tour of Japan and New Zealand only if he has signed with a Premiership club for the upcoming season. Rumor has it that Bath and Gloucester, both of which Arundell had a season ticket for in his youth, are interested in signing him.
While the RFU may be pleased to see Arundell thrive in France, there is a downside. Jack Willis’ impressive performance for Toulouse last season, which left the club’s fans questioning why he wasn’t chosen for Steve Borthwick’s top World Cup lineup, could be seen as an exception due to his move being a result of Wasps’ financial struggles.
David Ribbans and Joe Marchant, two Englishmen living in France, have not adjusted to their new life as quickly as Joe Simmonds, who has been performing exceptionally well in Pau. However, if Arundell continues to have a successful season, it suggests that this is becoming a common occurrence – English players not only maintain their skills while playing in France, but actually improve them. During the Six Nations tournament, Borthwick was asked if Willis had developed as a player during his time with Toulouse. Knowing the delicate situation of the RFU’s stance on selecting players from abroad, his hesitancy spoke volumes.
At the time, Borthwick was insistent that he wanted to have the ability to select “the most exceptional players” which differs slightly from the official stance now, which emphasizes the desire for “the top English players to compete in England”. This viewpoint was echoed, nearly word for word, by Owen Farrell last week, as his Saracens and England teammate Maro Itoje faces a decision between taking a significant pay cut to stay with his current team or earning a higher salary abroad. Currently, this does not meet the criteria for “exceptional circumstances” – despite the players’ collective argument to the RFU – and would prevent Itoje from representing England and receiving the lucrative appearance fees offered to a guaranteed starter. The potential solution could be for the RFU to expedite their “hybrid contracts” with Itoje as the main example, although specific details are still scarce.
Returning to Arundell, the RFU can currently use the excuse of “exceptional circumstances” due to London Irish’s financial collapse last season. However, issues may arise if players like Willis decide to play in France next season, even if a hybrid contract is offered in time. How Borthwick utilizes him in the upcoming months could heavily influence his decision.
During the World Cup, Arundell managed to score five tries, all in one game against Chile. However, his performance in the third-place match against Argentina was desperate. He has had some impressive moments in his ten games for England, including scoring a stunning try in his first touch against Australia in July 2022. However, he has also struggled in other games such as against the Pumas, Wales in the World Cup warmups (where he received a yellow card), and Ireland during the Six Nations. In all of these instances, England’s failure to get the ball to him early and frequently has been a common factor, leading to questions about whether Borthwick truly wants Arundell on his team.
The coach has praised Arundell’s X-factor, but some members of the England management have expressed doubts about his readiness for the Test arena. Although he is expected to reach that level, concerns about his all-around skills align with his limited playing time at the World Cup.
Last week in Paris, Borthwick visited and caught up with one of his predecessors, Lancaster, which is a promising sign. However, based on the evidence we have seen, it is clear that Arundell is not a good fit for the current England system. According to a reliable source, Jonny May may not rank in the top 10 Premiership wingers by objective standards, but he excels at chasing kicks and defending. Borthwick chose Elliot Daly as his preferred option on the other wing in France, as he has the rugby knowledge to adapt his game to fit the kick-chase style. It is unfortunate to see such a talented player constrained by Borthwick’s repeated insistence that the team “must get the ball in his hands.”
May has recently decided to retire from his England career, meaning he won’t be participating in the Six Nations. If Daly takes over for Marchant, who is unable to play due to his previous club still being active, Borthwick will need to consider other options for the outside centre position, which has been constantly changing during his time as coach.
Opponents may argue that the chosen player for the wing position is irrelevant if England sticks to a game strategy that results in them having limited possession. However, the decision to give Arundell more freedom and, more importantly, adapting a playing style that complements him will greatly impact Borthwick’s progress in developing the team.
The choice becomes increasingly important as Arundell’s exclusion is championed by English fans who desire a more daring approach to the game. This viewpoint gains credibility with each point he scores for Racing.