Arundell’s French adventure puts pressure on Borthwick and RFU

<span>Photograph: David Winter/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: David Winter/Shutterstock

Another week, another stunning try for Henry Arundell, whose start to life in Paris with Racing 92 could hardly be going better. In only three appearances, one of which came from the bench, Arundell has already shown the Racing faithful what numerous England fans consider blindingly obvious – give the 21-year-old the ball and he will deliver with tries.

He now has four for his new club, including a breathtaking hat-trick on his debut, and it appears clear that Arundell has settled into a side that like to put on a show in their thunderdome home that is La Defense Arena. Stuart Lancaster welcomed Siya Kolisi back to his ranks in the statement 32-10 win over La Rochelle on Sunday night to add yet more star appeal and evidently both Englishmen are already thriving in Paris.

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Arundell’s progress for Racing will be closely monitored at the Rugby Football Union, which has applied its exceptional circumstances loophole to ensure he is available to play for England in the Six Nations. He will only be available for the summer tour of Japan and New Zealand, however, if he has signed with a Premiership club for next season. Bath – where Arundell had a season ticket as a youngster and where there was considerable interest before he agreed the move to Racing – and Gloucester are said to be potential suitors.

As much as the RFU will enjoy seeing Arundell flourish in France, there is a flipside. Jack Willis’s consistent excellence for Toulouse last season – to the extent that the club’s supporters were baffled he could not get into Steve Borthwick’s first-choice World Cup XV – could be considered an outlier in the sense that he was forced to make the move after Wasps went bust.

Not all Englishmen abroad have taken to life in France quite so quickly – David Ribbans and Joe Marchant are not exactly pulling up trees just yet even if Joe Simmonds has excelled at Pau. However, if Arundell continues in a similar vein this season it starts to look like a trend – England players don’t just maintain their standards in France, playing there improves them. During this year’s Six Nations, Borthwick was asked if Willis had become a better player in his time with Toulouse and, knowing full well the tightrope that the RFU is walking when it comes to selecting players based abroad, his pause was pregnant with twins.

At the time, Borthwick was adamant that he wanted to be able to pick “the best players possible” which is subtly different from the party line, which now states that “we want the best English players playing in England”. It was repeated, pretty much verbatim, by Owen Farrell last week with his Saracens and England teammate Maro Itoje seemingly facing the choice between a significant pay cut to stay where he is or to earn his market value abroad. As things stand that is not enough to invoke exceptional circumstances – as much as the players have collectively argued otherwise to the RFU – and so Itoje would be prevented from playing for England and collecting the lucrative appearance fees on offer to a guaranteed starter. The solution may prove to be that the RFU hurries through its “hybrid contracts” with Itoje as the poster boy but details remain thin on the ground.

Back to Arundell, and for now the RFU can hide behind its exceptional circumstances, invoked because London Irish went bust at the end of last season. Problems arise though if, like Willis, Arundell decides that the grass is indeed greener outside England and chooses to stay in France next season – regardless of whether the offer of a hybrid contract arrives in time – and how he is used by Borthwick in the coming months is likely to have a significant impact on his decision.

Racing 92’s English full-back Henry Arundell touches down against La Rochelle for his fourth try of the season
Racing 92’s Henry Arundell touches down against La Rochelle for his fourth try of the season. Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

While Arundell scored five tries at the World Cup – all in one match against Chile – his was a desperate performance in the third-place match against Argentina. He has had some fine moments in his 10 appearances for England, scoring a mesmerising try with his first touch against Australia in July 2022, but equally, against the Pumas, against Wales in the World Cup warmups when he was shown a yellow card and against Ireland during the Six Nations he has looked a fish out of water. The common denominator on each occasion has been England’s failure to get the ball in hands early and often, which raises the question of whether Borthwick really wants Arundell at his disposal.

The head coach has talked glowingly about the X-factor that Arundell possesses but privately some members of the England management are said to have doubts about his current suitability for the Test arena. There is little doubt he will get there but uncertainty over his all-round game would chime with the relative lack of minutes he was afforded at the World Cup.

That Borthwick paid him a visit last week in Paris – taking the opportunity to catch up with one of his predecessors, Lancaster, too – bodes well but the evidence we have seen so far makes it clear that Arundell does not fit into the current England system. As one well-placed source explained, Jonny May does not make it into the top 10 Premiership wingers by most objective standards but when it comes to the disciplines of chasing kicks and holding firm defensively there are few better. Elliot Daly was Borthwick’s preferred choice on the other wing in France and is someone with the rugby intelligence to adapt their game to fit the kick-chase mould. What a shame it was, however, to see such a gifted player shoved into a straitjacket despite Borthwick’s repeated insistence that his side “have to get the ball in his hands”.

May has now called time on his England career so will not be on duty during the Six Nations and if Daly fills the void left by Marchant – who is not available for selection because the Premiership club he left is still in existence – at outside centre, Borthwick will be looking for options in an area of the field that has always felt fluid during his tenure.

Critics would argue it doesn’t matter who he picks on the wing if England continue with a gameplan that sees them starved of the ball but whether he gives Arundell his head, and more significantly, adopts a style that suits him will go a long way to determining the next phase in Borthwick’s evolution. It is a selection that takes on added significance because, already, the marginalisation of Arundell is held up by those supporters who crave more ambition as something that has to change. It is an argument that gains weight with every try he scores for Racing.

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