The story of Sam Arnold, the 'starry-eyed kid' shining for Munster after being rejected by English rugby
Andy Houston does not mind admitting that he spent a significant portion of Munster’s stirring 20-19 victory over Toulon on the verge of tears.
Centre Sam Arnold was one of the heroes of the latest European epic at Thomond Park three weeks ago. He ended a primeval defensive display with layers of bandage wound around his head and congealed blood smeared across his face.
But Houston still recognised the quiet, yet assured and determined teenager that had turned up to look around the striking surrounds of Cranleigh School some six years previously.
“I used to call him the ‘starry-eyed kid’. Straightaway, you knew he would get to where he wanted to go,” says Houston, Cranleigh’s director of rugby.
“He told me on that day that he wanted to play professionally and that he wanted to be a British and Irish Lion. I just really liked him.”
Arnold’s mother Jackie had rung up to apply for a means-tested bursary – different from a rugby scholarship – after her son had failed to get a trial for the London and South East Under-16 side.
Sam, born in Redhill, was involved with the Harlequins academy. However, Jackie thought that leaving Uplands Community College in Wadhurst would bring valuable opportunities. Via a winding road, the hunch has led to Sunday’s Champions Cup semi-final against Racing 92 in Bordeaux.
Houston did not need to watch Arnold on the pitch to recommend that Jackie’s application was accepted. Due in part to sheer diligence – Sam made a habit of 6am weights sessions – the new boy promptly impressed for Cranleigh’s first team XV the following season.
“Sometimes good players at school level can become nonchalant,” adds Houston, making an observation that could apply to Arnold’s efforts against Toulon.
“Sam wasn’t like that at all. If the team weren’t playing well, he’d run himself into the ground. That’s what he’s like now in every team he plays in.
“You might not always win but you’ll at least be close enough for a nail-biter because he’ll drag you there somehow.”
Arnold initially played for Cranleigh at scrum-half, where Harlequins saw his future. Then, having pursued the Irish Exiles programme thanks to Jackie’s heritage, he was picked in midfield for Ireland Clubs and Schools Under-18.
Against England Clubs and Schools, Arnold faced good friend and Cranleigh colleague Charlie Piper – a hooker who would go on to feature in a triumphant World Under 20 Championship with England but was released by Harlequins just this week.
Arnold impressed and continued through Ireland’s age-group system, linking up with stars as bright as Garry Ringrose, Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Porter along the way. Houston continues the story.
“Harlequins were telling him he wasn’t good enough to play centre and he had to play scrum-half. They were probably, and understandably, thinking of it from their point of view.
“Ireland said: ‘We think your attributes suit centre better.’ Because there is not quite as big a talent pool, the Irish system can take a risk on things like size.
“They would put more emphasis on skill and, because there are fewer players in an age-group – like in New Zealand – you have to nurture that talent. You can’t just hope that if one player doesn’t work out than someone else will, as might be the case in England.
“Ireland did tell him to work on his strength, but he’s actually lighter now than he was at Cranleigh. Deep down, I think he knew he was always more of a centre than a scrum-half and I think being rejected when he was younger gave him real grit, made him think to himself that he’d rather do it for Ireland than England.”
Although a few agents offered their services, Arnold travelled with Houston to Belfast where he signed for Ulster and spent two seasons, featuring once in the Champions Cup before moving on again in 2016. He had only just turned 20.
“Sam asked Ulster if he would start if he came back the fittest, the strongest and was playing well in pre-season,” Houston says. “Ulster said ‘well we’ve got these other guys…so probably not.’
“That’s how he’s found his way to Munster. He’s a brave lad. He moved away from his mum to come to Cranleigh then he moved to Belfast on his own. Moving to further his ambition isn’t a big thing for him. He’s always thinking: ‘I’m here to get this done.’”
While the 2016-7 campaign was curtailed by injuries, Arnold has seized chances vigorously this season. Two tries from the bench against the Dragons last November has proved to be a launch-pad – notwithstanding the blip of a red card against Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium.
BT Sport pundit Brian O’Driscoll named him man of the match in December’s 33-10 Champions Cup thumping of Leicester Tigers and Joe Schmidt called him in to help with Ireland’s Six Nations preparations.
The Toulon game felt especially poignant for Houston. He remembers sitting with Arnold in East boarding house at Cranleigh and dissecting the subtleties of Ma’a Nonu’s performance during a 38-27 win for New Zealand over South Africa in October 2013. Watching his protégé take on Nonu in the Champions Cup quarter-final five years later, one moment encapsulated Arnold’s character for Houston.
“In the 77th minute, he’d got a smash on the side of his face and ballooned up. He had tape wrapped around his head and blood coming down his face. But he got up, turned around to the fly-half and said: ‘I want the ball’. That’s Sam.
“It’s that lack of fear that makes him. He was excited that Manu Tuilagi was going to play for Tigers. He’ll hope Dan Carter is picked for Racing on Sunday. He’s such a competitor.
“He’s always said that he’s been very grateful to the school but I turn it around. I’m actually grateful that Sam turned up on that random day. He’ll have a legacy here.”