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The Stuart Lancaster verdict on his England winger Henry Arundell

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Christophe Simon/AFP via Getty Images)

Former England boss Stuart Lancaster has explained what it has been like in recent weeks working with Henry Arundell in France. The 21-year-old was signed by Racing 92 in the summer following the collapse of London Irish and with the Rugby World Cup ending in a third-place finish for Steve Borthwick’s English squad, the Test-level rookie has since linked up with his new club.

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Lancaster agreed in September 2022 that he would leave his senior coaching role with Irish side Leinster to become the Racing director of rugby for the start of the 2023/24 season. His new beginnings have been promising as the club is currently in pole position after nine matches with the Top 14 set to take a two-week pause to accommodate the start of the Champions Cup.

On taking charge, he convinced Arundell to sign a stop-gap one-year deal with the Parisians and the youngster has settled in quickly, scoring four tries in his three appearances ahead of next Sunday’s visit of Harlequins. “He has been good,” claimed Lancaster, passing verdict on his first impressions of Arundell in the Racing colours.

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“It came about because of the demise of London Irish. Obviously, he was keen to take the opportunity to experience the Top14. I didn’t know him previously but we chatted and I convinced him I could create a good opportunity for him to develop and grow as a player.

“With the likes of Hugo Keenan, Jimmy O’Brien, Jordan Larmour, James Lowe, the guys I coached in Ireland and England, I would be confident in my ability to develop young players. He was keen to experience both France and the environment we have created here.

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“He started after the World Cup, is probably here six weeks and has been great in training, very professional attitude and is very mature for a 21-year-old. Mature in terms of his outlook on life and what he wants to achieve. We have had a chance to play him on the wing and at 15. Both options are open.

“His athleticism obviously stands out but I have been impressed with his ball distribution, his kicking game, his aerial game and defensively he is switched on. He has definitely had a good start and I think he is enjoying it.

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The confidence and maturity to come and live in France on his own in a flat, not many 21-year-olds if you said to them, ‘Do you want to do that?’ would they choose to. They would probably find it a bit uncomfortable being in a foreign language, not being able to speak the language and living on your own in a flat.

“But Henry is happy to do that because he sees this as an opportunity too grow and develop. That’s what I mean by a mature outlook. The mindset to think maybe I can be a better player here by experiencing working with Freddie Michalak, Joe Rokocoko and in a Racing environment in the Top 14.”

Arundell arrived at Racing following limited exposure with England. He was yellow carded in a forgettable Summer Nations Series appearance against Wales and while he was the impressive scorer of five tries in the World Cup pool match versus Chile in Lille, his only other appearance came in the bronze medal final against Argentina in Paris where he didn’t shine.

It’s part of the reason why Lancaster has given him 187 minutes on the pitch in two starts and one run off the bench. “I don’t think Henry would agree to that,” reckoned the director of rugby when asked if limiting Arundell’s minutes was on the Racing agenda. “I’m not going to hold him back in that regard.

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“That said, I have got a big squad to manage. We have got 26 league games and definitely four in Europe, so there are 30 for a start, so he is not going to play every minute of every game but neither is anyone. That includes Gael Fickou, Henry Chavancy and the youngest player in the team.

“I won’t be managing him because of his age. He is definitely ready to play consistently. The more minutes and the more training sessions he does, the better he’s going to get. The 10 thousand-hour rule has a part to play in player development. It doesn’t have to be 10 thousand hours of playing rugby games.

“How we train here at Racing, and it’s not dissimilar to what I did at Leinster, is we do lots of games in training. So I’m trying to create decision-making opportunities for him in training that he has to execute constantly during the week. Then the game itself is another step up, so I’m not worried about that. He is old enough to be thrown in the deep end.

“He wasn’t begging (to play straightaway after the World Cup) but he was definitely excited to get an opportunity to train. The way we train is very much games-related. Obviously working on core skills, running lines, decision-making all the time, defence, contact area whatever. But how we train meant he was always going to be thrown in. He was keen to go, definitely.

“Players come back from the World Cup, in my experience, in different mindsets. 2019 in Ireland was obviously different from how players have come back in 2023. Gael and Cameron (Woki), obviously the disappointment of losing in the quarter-final. Henry has come on the back of England losing, that game against South Africa was so close; then winning the Argentina game and he didn’t have a huge amount to play.

“So he was good to go whereas Siya (Kolisi) and Trevor Nyakane were in South Africa somewhere on a trophy tour. I feel we are all beginning to go in the right direction now, but it’s been difficult for every player from the World Cup.”

Following Arundell’s bright start in Paris, there has been plenty of speculation about which club he will play for in 2024/25. He currently has RFU permission to be selected by England in their Guinness Six Nations squad, but that free pass will expire at the end of this season and he will become ineligible for Test inclusion unless he joins a Gallagher Premiership club.

Should the RFU relax the current Test squad restrictions on non-Premiership players? “It’s a very tricky one,” suggested Lancaster. “I go back to 2011. I get the interim (England) job and there are decisions to be made about players who were in France, and the RFU has held the line with Premiership Rugby squarely behind it because they want to keep their homegrown talent in England. I 100 per cent can agree with why that is important to England and to the Premiership.

“It obviously is getting harder to do that on a more consistent basis because players are wanting to grow as well and wanting to take opportunities. It’s a difficult one to answer, really because I think the England coach as well, you want access to the players outside the (international) window… You might in the fallow weeks want to hold a camp or give them a rest and if they are not in England, then obviously a French club could pull them back.

“From my point of view, any international player who plays in the Six Nations, I’m never going to compromise their chances to be successful for their national team – be that French players or English players, or Welsh players or whoever. We have got Will Rowlands here, for example… so we’ll see. We’ll see what happens with Henry. It’s early days for him and there is a decision to be made. Whichever way he goes, I’ll support him and try and help him develop, for sure.”

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