Saturday 19 October 2019

Rejected by Harlequins and deemed too small for England, Irish exile has found his feet at Munster

Sam Arnold goes over for a Munster try against Dragons last month. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Sam Arnold goes over for a Munster try against Dragons last month. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

One by one they trotted into the treatment room at the Munster High Performance Centre at the University of Limerick.

Jaco Taute. Tyler Bleyendaal. Keith Earls. Chris Farrell.

All could have played such a crucial role in this December's vital double-header with Leicester Tigers, twin dates which will do much to define the province's European hopes for the season. But all are unavailable for now.

Instead, Munster supporters will be placing their inestimable faith upon the shoulders of a largely untested and untried midfielder in the guise of Sam Arnold.

To many beyond those intimate with Munster Rugby, he is also an unknown quantity; that in itself may be an unintended positive consequence which can be used to ambush unwitting opponents.

Although he has bided his time for a breakthrough in red, the 21-year-old will have never experienced the cauldrons that await him over the next ten days in the feverish hotbeds of Limerick and Leicester.

Sam Arnold in Champions Cup action for Ulster in January 2016. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Sam Arnold in Champions Cup action for Ulster in January 2016. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile


He has played Champions Cup rugby before, a fleeting appearance on the wing for Ulster in Oyonnax, but this is different. This is bigger. This is Munster. This is Thomond.

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"That is a challenge, stepping into that cauldron," admits Conor Murray, who obviated that particular leap by negotiating international and World Cup debuts before he ever even tasted a European evening in red.

"But, judging by the way he is going so far, I don't think it will be an issue."

Arnold is an exile in exile but happily so; a new breed of Irish professional.

For all of the focus (and expense) on the recruitment of disenchanted southern hemisphere players seeking status and salary in Ireland, the centre has traversed a less recognised route but one familiar to students of Irish rugby history.

There was a time when the Irish exiles played in the interpro series and formed a decent wedge of the national side; professionalism and globalisation have changed all that but the IRFU can't solely rely on picking up cast-offs from down south for ever more.

Born in Redhill, Surrey, when he was five he moved to Kent, went to state school until sixth form, and then he got a rugby scholarship to Cranleigh aged 16.

All very pastoral and English; but a mother from Wexford (and grandfather from Bere Island in Cork) ensured Irishness coursed through his blood.

A scrum-half with his county, he never made the South-East counties' squad and Harlequins, who wanted him for their Academy, would only take him as a nine but he wanted more.

And so he turned to Andy Houston, his director of rugby at Cranleigh. "I want to play in the centre and I want to play in the centre for Ireland."

Kieran Campbell at Ulster picked him up and, leaving home comforts behind, a new career path beckoned. "I've never met anyone as single-minded as Sam," says Houston, who still speaks to his former charge every weekend.

"He's stubborn. You tell him that something can't be done, he will try to prove you wrong. That's how he reacted when he was told he wasn't good enough.

"I've never coached a boy as hard and as focused as he was, with such a strong mentality. In his first game for us, he was man of the match in a team going backwards. That's tough for a scrum-half. That mentality is very hard to develop in players but he had it an early age."

Some felt he was as good, if not better, than his midfield partner Garry Ringrose - who was more than a year older - on the U-20s. As you may know, Ringrose has had quite the surge since.

Despite his own initial acceleration into Ulster ranks - topped by the stunning Champions Cup comeback win in Oyonnax as a teenager - that single-mindedness would compel him to move once more.

"I want to play for the Lions," he now told Houston.

Then, disaster struck. In pre-season, he did his cruciate; then, when he returned, too eagerly forcing his fitness, he did the medial ligament in his other knee.

"He's just 100pc, he knows no other way," says his former teacher. "His mentality is such that he will go at everything with ultimate intensity."

When he did get match-ready, emergency signing Jaco Taute had emerged as a cult hero; but now the circle has turned.

"Sammy and I chat quite a bit," says Murray. "Any time he has played he has been really impressive and it is just reward for him. He has matured really well.

"He was getting upset about not finding form and getting injured. But he has developed as a player, matured as a person and he is going really well at the moment. If he gets the chance it is going to be a step up.

"It is up to the players around him to help him step up. He is a superb athlete, even our review this week from the Ospreys game, he featured so much in it. He is going really well so, ability-wise, there is absolutely no problem."

As Houston says of his latest challenge, "I wouldn't bet against him." Captain Peter O'Mahony, driven by the currency of fear, anoints him thus. "I wouldn't have any fear for him."

Sam Arnold was always ready for the big occasion. Now the big occasion is ready for him.

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