Of all the deep-pocketed French clubs that England starlet Henry Arundell could have chosen following the demise of London Irish last season, it was Racing 92, in the suburbs of Paris, one-time French champions in the professional era and three-time losing finalists in Europe.
So why did this 21-year-old, with the English rugby world at his feet, a member of Steve Borthwick’s World Cup squad, choose to move to a flat in the Parisian suburbs, with an unfamiliar language and culture?
Whatever the answer, the move – even if it were to last for just this season, with Bath hopeful of bringing the wunderkind back to England – has been an unmitigated success thus far. Arundell has already scored four tries in two starts for his new club, including a hat-trick on debut at Toulon. Finances might have played a part, of course, but there is another Englishman at the heart of the journey; a former England head coach at that. Stuart Lancaster has been in charge of the French aristocrats since July, ending a seven-year association with Leinster during which the Irish province won four domestic titles and a European Cup. There was also the chance to work alongside Lancaster’s lieutenants: former France fly-half Frédéric Michalak and former All Blacks wing Joe Rokocoko.
“I didn’t know Henry previously but we chatted and I convinced him I could create a good opportunity for him to develop and grow as a player,” said Lancaster ahead of a Champions Cup meeting with Harlequins on Sunday. “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’ve created here.
“He started after the World Cup, he’s probably been here six weeks, and he’s been great in training – a very professional attitude and very mature for a 21-year-old. Mature in terms of his outlook in life and what he wants to achieve. We’ve had a chance to play him on the wing and at 15. Both options are open.”
‘I’m not going to hold Arundell back’
One task for Lancaster is managing Arundell. The utility back, either by injury or for tactical reasons, did not feature as prominently as he might have hoped for his country during the recent tournament in France, starting in just two matches yet scoring five tries against Chile in the pool stages before managing 66 minutes against Argentina in the bronze final. Despite his youth, there is no sense that Arundell’s game-time needs to be limited.
“I don’t think Henry would agree to that,” said Lancaster. “I’m not going to hold him back in that regard. That said, I’ve got a big squad to manage. We’ve got 26 league games and definitely four in Europe, so there’s 30 for a start. So he’s not going to play every minute of every game, but neither is anyone.
“He wasn’t begging [after the World Cup] but he was definitely excited to get an opportunity to train. The way we train is very much games-related... meaning he was always going to be thrown in. He was keen to go, definitely.”
Lancaster clearly did a successful job of selling Racing 92 to Arundell, but why was the head coach drawn to the French giants, with their snazzy indoor stadium and location out of the traditional heartland of rugby in France, the south west.
“There were a few factors: one was the challenge of the Top 14 and of coming to live in France and trying to adapt to and learn a foreign culture, and trying to become successful,” Lancaster said. “Racing had success in the Top 14 back in 2016 and have been in three European Cup finals with no wins. They want to try and get that first star, and more Top 14 wins.
“One of the overriding factors was that Racing said there was no plan B: ‘We want you to come.’ That was persuasive. It was just about figuring out when was the right time to leave Leinster and take on this challenge. Family-wise, Sophie and Dan [his children] are now 21 and 22, Nina [his wife] could move across with the dogs.”
‘Racing’s goal is to win the double’
Lancaster’s Racing 92, after nine matches, are at the summit of the Top 14 table by a whisker, with six wins. The profile and the league has not necessarily shocked Lancaster, but he is aware of the gargantuan challenge of fighting on two fronts.
This weekend, however, eyes turn to Europe, a competition which has not historically been at the forefront of the French psyche. So, how much of a priority is it for Racing 92 this season, with Lancaster’s European acumen now a part of their coaching set-up?
“I’ve actually asked the question to all the players and all the staff,” said Lancaster. “What’s more important? Because the Top 14 is huge here in France, but clearly I’d be doing both competitions a disservice if I said one was more important than the other. I’ve had the privilege of coaching a team which did the double in 2018, the sense of fulfilment the players and coaching staff got from that particular year is probably unparalleled in any experience in my career, so the goal is to try and win both.
“I had a fair amount of experience of [the Top 14] with Leinster in Europe. There were not many places I hadn’t been; Clermont-Ferrand was one, at the weekend. It’s high profile in the country, with the TV, and the way in which the teams have very strong identities based on towns or history of the area; every game feels like a Leicester v Northampton game.”
A challenge which Lancaster is relishing – Arundell, too.