Friday 25 May 2018

Pain brings gain for exile in Red

Sammy Arnold has shown steely determination to make it back from a nightmare run of injuries

Sam Arnold. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Sam Arnold. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Rugby is such a brutal sport that the most frequent news item is injury. All sorts, and with varying impacts from tweaks and strains to game-changers and career-enders. So when you come across someone who has put up with unreal stress and anxiety to get back on the field there tends to be a flood of goodwill towards them.

Ed Byrne in Leinster would be a good example. Between October 2014 and February 2017 there was a great big gap where his senior career was supposed to be. So last year when he came off the bench in Rodney Parade, of all places to put his career back on track, it was one of those special moments when the human spirit wins out over adversity. A fortnight later, he was running out at the RDS and it was like he was being feted for hitting the ton.

Sammy Arnold's stats are lagging behind Byrne's for sheer time off the field - it was 23 months between the prop having his first ACL and getting back for a junior game with UCD - but he's streets ahead on the sequence of setbacks. He is verging on makey-uppy territory.

Factor in that Arnold is younger (22), living away from home, and had just made the second big move of his stuttering career and you have to marvel at his mental strength. He picks up the story in Ulster two seasons ago.

"If I'm being completely honest with you, it was a complete nightmare," he says. "I really struggled during it, just with the kinda . . . I'd get myself back playing and it was like having a carrot dangled in front of my face. I just couldn't get back. I then moved down from Ulster to here. I had the three hamstring tears basically and then came in for pre-season, did my knee, came back from that and did my other knee, but what people didn't know was that towards the end of the season I had a couple of ankle niggles as well. I had three injections in my ankle just to play the B&I Cup final (last April).

"So there was a time I was thinking, 'Am I ever going to get back to playing?' I had a year left on my contract. I tore my calf in pre-season - it kept me out for the first few games of this season. There was a time I thought I was headed for the Championship in England. It was a nightmare. I thought I was done and dusted.

Sam Arnold in action for Munster. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Sam Arnold in action for Munster. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

"There was one day I was sitting in my bedroom in Castletroy in Limerick and I just said to myself, 'If this is going to be my last chance then I'm going to make sure I do everything I possibly can, and if I'm going to have to walk away with my head held high and find a new club then I will.' I wasn't going to bow out without giving 100 per cent kind of thing."

Sammy Arnold could be the focus of a few ad campaigns. Take your pick from the following themes: telling the story of the danger of contact sport; or how to deal with setbacks of same; or why Ireland-qualified players in the UK should jump at the opportunity to get into the Irish system; or maybe the battle of keeping the lid on your warrior spirit.

We'll start with the last one. In January this season Arnold was sent off in the Kingspan for flooring Christian Lealiifano with a tackle that was late, and high. And looked opportunist. As in, it was a chance to put a big shot on an opponent and he just couldn't say no. Arnold's description of it is different, that he heard a call to get kick-pressure on the 10 and that in his state of excitement he did a bit more than that. Whatever, he's not claiming he didn't deserve the red card that followed.

There is more than a bit of the dog in him, which would explain partly why he is so well respected in the Munster group. But when he arrived in Limerick first he was trying to go from 0-60mph without going through the gears. That was partly down to the need to impress new team-mates and coaches, and partly down to who he is. Just because he has savage acceleration doesn't mean everything has to be done flat out.

The raw competitiveness is something Joe Schmidt picked up on fairly quickly, bringing Arnold into the training squad during the Six Nations to get a feel for what he was about. One day, towards the end of his suspension, he gets a phone call from a number identified only as coming from Dublin. Most lads would stop first at the door marked 'wind-up' when they heard the Kiwi accent, but Arnold jumped right in. And he didn't look out of his depth.

For the likes of Joe Lydon, rounding up Ireland-qualified talent in the UK and trying to slot it into the system over here, phone-calls like that from the boss make his job so much easier. Arnold, as it happens, was always leaning towards this part of the world. Born and raised in London, he spent family holidays with the cousins in Our Lady's Island in Wexford, his mother's home. His great granddad is an O'Sullivan from Bere Island - coincidentally his centre partner Rory Scannell has similar connections - so his Irishness is not a struggle for him.

"From what mum says, it's a strange place and there's not much to do there," he says, of Bere Island, not the country as a whole.

Arnold's ambition as a rugby player pre-dated the IRFU's drive for exiles, but by the time they caught up with him he was well on the road. As a teenager he manufactured a move from one school in Kent to another in Sussex so that he could switch from Saracens' catchment area to Harlequins'. Why? Because the Kent county side had lost interest in him. At 13. That wasn't quite how he presented the plan to his mother, framing it in the context of being better for his academics. From there came a scholarship to a fancy-ass school in Surrey; and then a tie-in with Quins for a few seasons until the Exiles recruited him and slotted him into Ulster.

Having played Ireland under 20 alongside Garry Ringrose, there was a clear pathway, which Ulster would have been happy for him to use. But time was moving on. Back then, in 2016, Ulster's outside backs were plentiful - and young - and Munster were very keen to bring him south. And he was keen to go. A very good bit of business, that.

"At the time obviously you have kind of second thoughts but it was 100 per cent the right decision," he says. "I think I'm in the place I'm supposed to be now."

If there is a Zen feel to that line then maybe it's because Sammy Arnold is a bit more philosophical about it all now. Last summer he spent a month in Fiji with the student volunteer charity Think Pacific. He worked in a primary school, teaching English and Maths and coaching rugby. Sampling a way of life well removed from here in its pace and culture, it gave him the perspective he needed. Colleagues saw a more rounded young man when they rocked up for pre-season.

That journey of reflection may well have kicked off when, last year, he dipped into Munster's support services for some sports psychology. And how he needed it. His injury issues kicked off on day one and put enormous strain on him mentally as much as physically.

"There were times in that 18 months when I was really, really struggling and I probably took it out on the people closest to me around here," he says. "I think guys probably got the wrong impression of me at first 'cos I was so frustrated. Luckily now things are a lot better for me and I can be happier. That's why I am so grateful to the guys around here. When things were tough and hard they probably didn't want to help me - I was being difficult - but guys rallied round me and really helped me through the tough times.

"The lads will tell you that when you're injured you feel like the world's against you and even the smallest kind of thing can push you to the point of breaking, especially when you've had it for nearly two years and you're wondering 'am I even going to get back playing again'."

Keith Earls was a massive support to him as well, and it's apposite that a veteran whose brilliant form was interrupted by injury at the tail end of the Six Nations should be back in the frame now. They bring different things to the table but both will be immensely valuable today.

"Someone said it before," Arnold says. "I don't know if it was Wilkinson or O'Driscoll, but they said we constantly live between two pillars of judgement: one was your last game and the other is you next game. And you can't switch off from that because your next game is when you're next going to be judged."

So having laid down a marker against Toulon in the quarter-final, Sammy Arnold will be at full throttle in Bordeaux this afternoon. This is not good news for whoever in the Racing team has to go toe-to-toe with him. At last things are working out as planned.

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