A few months ago Eddie Jones turned up at an England Under-20 camp to run an eye over the next generation. Every national coach dreams of finding a teenage gem, someone with a little bit of genuine X-factor, so Jones asked the assembled coaches if they reckoned there was anyone potentially good enough to feature at the 2023 Rugby World Cup. If there’s one who might, came the reply, it’s that dark-haired lad over there.
If he was under many people’s radar at that stage, he is certainly not a secret any more. Henry Arundell is his name and, after only six league appearances for London Irish, his meteoric rise shows little sign of slowing down. In early February the 19-year-old full-back scored a stunning length-of-the-field try for England U20s against Scotland U20s in Edinburgh which suggested he had something special about him. At the end of last month he also scored two fine tries, one of them a glorious chip and regather, in the Exiles’ Premiership Cup semi-final against Leicester.
Often, at this point, young players can rest on their laurels or start to find defences less accommodating. Arundell has simply flicked the turbo switch and accelerated to another level. Another class individual score helped Irish complete an astonishing comeback to draw 42-42 with Wasps this month before he came off the bench in Toulon on Sunday and scored a try which had even seasoned former pros ooh-ing and aah-ing in admiration.
If you have not already seen it – and it has gone properly viral – it is truly a wonder to behold. With his side trailing on a damp early afternoon at the Stade Mayol, there was barely even time for Arundell to consider his options after Nick Phipps had shovelled a hasty pass in his direction close to his own line. If there was plenty to admire in his instinctive decision to have a go and surge past the initial cover into open field, the best was yet to come.
Twice a pair of Toulon defenders reckoned they had him covered; twice he expertly wrongfooted them on the outside before diving into the right corner to score a try worthy of winning any game. As it was, the conversion flew wide and Irish lost by a point, but there was no disputing the unexpected star of the show.
From a military family, educated at Harrow School and attached to London Irish’s academy since his early teens, the million dollar question is what happens next. Arundell is understood to be eligible to play international rugby for England, Scotland, Wales and Cyprus and, even prior to the weekend, senior officials at Twickenham were under instructions to “get Arundell” before anyone else nips in and caps him.
There must, therefore, be a strong chance of the young man touring Australia with England this summer, if only to dissuade Scotland from picking him to go to South America as part of their senior squad. The Scots are looking for a long-term successor to Stuart Hogg and Gregor Townsend has been quick to pounce on dual-qualified Premiership-based players who might have to wait longer for a chance to shine south of the border.
But as the Rugby Football Union’s rugby director, Conor O’Shea, made clear immediately after the Six Nations, England are currently well aware of the need to sharpen their attacking edge and give defences something other than a strong pack and a decent kicking game to think about. “I think what Eddie will be looking through now is how you stretch defences,” said O’Shea. “Getting a bit more gas into the team is something we are very conscious to do. We need to score more tries, we know that.”
“Gas” is certainly something Arundell can provide and, with London Irish now out of Europe and unable to make the Premiership top four, there is an obvious chance for Jones to invite him to a scheduled England mini-camp in London between 22-24 May. “There is definitely interest [from England] but Henry is the first to know there are parts of his game he needs to work on,” said Declan Kidney, London Irish’s director of rugby earlier this month. “What you don’t want him to do is get one or two caps … isn’t it better if he gets in there as the full package? I am sure the powers that be will do the right thing around the lad because he has got talent.”
Sometimes, though, talent writes its own go-faster scripts. Modern rugby, as underlined by the athleticism of Teddy Thomas and Finn Russell’s quick thinking for Racing 92 against Sale in Paris on Sunday, is entering an era when taking a chance is increasingly encouraged. There will be days when Arundell does not score length-of-the-field wonder-tries and looks like a youngster with much still to learn. But every sport craves athletes capable of illuminating a stadium in an instant and rugby union, no question, has unearthed a twinkling new star.