As England wrestle with their structures, their systems and seemingly their straitjackets given the paucity of their attack for large parts of the first Test defeat in Australia, it is refreshing to hear Henry Arundell’s reminder that sport is at its best when played on instinct. “There was no thinking to it, I just tried to find space, get off the tackle and try to score.”
Rewatch the last 10 minutes of last Saturday’s first Test in Perth and Eddie Jones would do well to keep Arundell’s mind clear for good. That may sound overly simplistic but all the best players have an uncanny ability to make things look easy. Australia had the game won by the time Arundell scored his debut try but nonetheless he reduced Andrew Kellaway and Noah Lolesio to the slapstick – colliding in a manner of which Laurel and Hardy would have been proud – before dashing into the left-hand corner and evoking memories of Jason Robinson’s try for the British & Irish Lions in Brisbane, where England now find themselves, 21 years ago.
Had Lolesio not knocked Freddie Steward’s pass on soon after, Arundell would surely have had a second – he was on his own 22 line but such is his pace there would have been no need to click those red boots of his together three times to disappear down the wing. Indeed, the 19-year-old still holds apprentice status in the squad but help beleaguered England turn the series around and Arundell will be heralded as the Wizard of Oz.
That may be jumping the gun but it is hard to remember a debut that has lived up to, or even exceeded, the hype. Danny Cipriani’s virtuoso performance against Ireland in 2008 springs to mind, as do Robinson’s fireworks in 2001 against Australia, even if both of those first Test starts as opposed to debuts. Equally, Mathew Tait offers a reminder of how easy it is for things to go horribly wrong, Jonny Wilkinson too, on his first start during the Tour of Hell.
“All week, [the coaches] were saying: ‘Just get on the ball. Play with your instincts.’ That’s what I’ve been doing all season,” added Arundell. “Before I went on, [Ellis] Genge and [Tom] Curry just said: ‘Get the ball.’ It was the same when I went on, [Joe] Marchant and Marcus [Smith] said: ‘We’re going to get you the ball,’ then Freddie [Steward] gave me a good pass. It was just: ‘Go – and see what happens.’”
There were some pre-match nerves but Arundell was helped by the fact he was in no way expecting to feature in the first Test after a calf injury ruled him out of the pre-tour defeat by the Barbarians. When he was named on the side he could not even tell his family at first with a training session imminent but his dad and brother have since made the trip to Australia and were in the crowd in Perth.
“I’m still an apprentice player, so I just thought I’d see what happens,” he said. “It’s a complete instinct thing and that’s how I want to play. I don’t want to start overthinking stuff and forcing things. Everyone is guilty of forcing things – I’ve done it as well – but I’ve learned that when you play on instinct it’s so much easier.”
He also took confidence from a jaw-dropping try on the training field that left a handful of his teammates red-faced and a number of spectators turning the air blue in disbelief. Subsequently, Jones made the comparison with the Wallabies great David Campese. “It’s a very high compliment,” he said. “The compliments are great but I’ve got to make sure I keep proving it. It’s fun when you get the comparisons but you have to be your own player and do your own thing.”
Arundell’s rise has been remarkable to the extent that he has started only twice in the Premiership for London Irish. A year ago he was just finishing school and those close to him believe the spark that has led to his emergence started when, stuck at home during lockdown, Arundell began weight training, honing the power in his legs that gives him such a turn of speed . For someone so fast, however, it is again refreshing to hear Arundell is in no immediate rush, eager to make the most of every fleet-footed step of his career.
“Everyone who does professional sport has that aspect to it where they want to keep getting better and keep getting that next milestone,” he added. “But at the moment, I don’t want to fast-forward too much. I want to appreciate what has happened, and think about how to get better because it’s great to score a try but we didn’t win. The main focus is winning this series and winning the World Cup next year.”