‘Ash the Splash’ has been creating waves again, not on the rugby field this time but as a pundit. Discussing the decision by Henry Arundell to sign a new contract with Racing 92, one which rules him out of England contention, Chris Ashton declared on the BBC’s weekly rugby podcast: “I’d like to know how many players there are that are 20-21 who have left their country and become a success?”
Evidently, the former England wing couldn’t think of any, hence his belief that the 21-year-old Arundell has made a major mistake in committing himself to Racing until 2026.
“I just can’t see how that is the right thing to be doing right now,” added Ashton, who spent a season at Toulon in the twilight of his career. “There are times in your career to be doing that stuff. I needed somebody at that age to like properly mentor me, spend a lot of time and put a lot of effort into me.”
Ashton could have namechecked his old Northampton and England team-mate, Tom Wood, as an example of a 20-year-old who boldly decided to head abroad. Wood spent a season playing for Otago in 2006. “My dad always used to say, ‘If you want to do the best in your studies, go to the best university in the world’,” said Wood, when asked subsequently about his season in Otago. “So it made sense for me to play in New Zealand.”
There are also of course, many young southern hemisphere players who have headed north and become a success, such as another old mucker of Ashton’s, Brad Barritt, who left South Africa aged 21 and won 26 caps for England.
In terms of club rugby, the Top 14 is the ‘best university’ in the world and Arundell got his studies off to a flying start with a hat-trick of tries on his debut last month.
Many other players have trod a similar path to the young Englishman over the years: from the Fijian trio of Noa Nakaitaci, Alivereti Raka and Josua Tuisova (a former team-mate of Ashton’s at Toulon), all 19 when they left Fiji for France, to Chris Farrell, 21 when he swapped Ulster for Grenoble, to Agustin Creevy, 22 when he departed Argentina for Biarritz,
Kitshoff sounded out another South African prop who had quit his comfort zone for France at the same age, Pieter de Villiers… De Villiers had won 69 caps for France between 1999 and 2007, so clearly challenging himself in a foreign country had done his career no harm.
Then there is Steven Kitshoff, who was an unknown 23-year-old when he signed for Bordeaux in 2015. Two years later Kitshoff won his first cap for South Africa and in 2019 he helped the Boks crush England in the 2019 World Cup final.
When I interviewed Kitshoff in 2016 I asked why he’d left South Africa at such a young age. “I was looking for a change,” he replied. “Getting a nice opportunity in France, to experience some other rugby was the main factor. I don’t regret anything and I’m very glad I came here.”
Kitshoff didn’t make the decision lightly. He sounded out another South African prop who had quit his comfort zone for France at the same age, Pieter de Villiers, who in 2015 was the South African scrum coach. De Villiers had won 69 caps for France between 1999 and 2007, so clearly challenging himself in a foreign country had done his career no harm.
Nor did it Kitshoff’s. The opposite. “The Top 14 is tougher in the scrum department,” he told me in 2016. “The work we do in the week is more intense than what I was used to back home and in general the scrummaging is harder and I’m learning more.”
Kitshoff took this knowledge back to the Stormers in 2017 and became a vital part of the South Africa front-row; he won his 83rd cap in October, along with a second World Cup winners medal.
Cheslin Kolbe also pocketed a second RWC gong two months ago. I interviewed Kolbe in 2017, a few weeks after he had arrived at Toulouse. It wasn’t the first time he’d been to Europe.
The previous year he had been part of the Springboks squad that toured England, Italy and Wales but he hadn’t got any game time; there was a sense on his part that he wasn’t getting the opportunity he deserved in his native land, where his lightning speed was regarded as best suited for Sevens.
Kolbe, who was 24 when he signed for Toulouse, told me he was “sad” that he didn’t even get a run for the Boks in the end-of-tour wind-down against the Barbarians. That was the final straw, the conclusive proof that at 1m70 and 80kg, he was considered too small for Test match rugby. “I think it has counted against me,” he said. “They [South Africa selectors] look for players who are much bigger, but it motivates me as a player to prove myself.”
Kolbe had also done something else during his time in France, as Kitshoff had and Tuisova and all the other youngsters who’d left their family, friends and security behind to test themselves in the Top 14. They’d matured as people.
Kolbe scored four tries for Toulouse in his first six Top 14 matches, and became a sensation in French rugby. He was part of the Toulouse side that won the Top 14 title in 2018-19, a season in which he was voted the Overseas Player of the Year.
Such was his form that even the Springbok selectors took note, and in August 2018 Kolbe was recalled to the South Africa squad. This time he got some game time. In his second Test he scored a try in the win over New Zealand, and he crossed the whitewash against the same opponents in his fourth cap. Kolbe had proved his critics wrong.
But he’d also done something else during his time in France, as Kitshoff had and Tuisova and all the other youngsters who’d left their family, friends and security behind to test themselves in the Top 14. They’d matured as people.
“It was a challenge having played in South Africa for quite a bit and then coming over to something completely out of my comfort zone, especially with a new-born baby then about four months old,” Kolbe said when I spoke to him a second time in 2020. “There was quite a lot on my plate at that time, but what I told myself and what I told the family was we have to go over and find our feet.”
Chris Ashton wasn’t alone in questioning Arundell’s decision to choose Racing over England. On the same podcast, former England and Quins wing Ugo Moyne said that “the steps from domestic to European to international are significant. The game at international level is wildly different from club. Whilst Henry is so special, I don’t think he quite understands what’s required from a winger at international level.”
Moyne and Ashton both appeared to have eaten some sour grapes, irritated that Arundell’s “special” talent won’t be seen by England fans for a few years. But who can blame Arundell if he’s a little disillusioned with English rugby? The national side don’t know how to use his talent; in his first four caps he got four touches of the ball, and still managed to score two tries. There has been scant indication in Steve Borthwick’s first year in charge that England will become an enterprising and expansive side in the years ahead.
French rugby provides the financial security missing from the Premiership right now and it’s wrong that players are punished for wanting to provide for their future.
There is also the way Arundell was forced to reconsider his options this summer after London Irish went under. Their demise followed that of Worcester and Wasps, a traumatic experience for everyone concerned.
Jack Willis told me of the “scars” he still bore from Wasps’ bankruptcy, and it’s understandable that the flanker has committed his future to Toulouse, in the process also becoming ineligible for England selection.
French rugby provides the financial security missing from the Premiership right now and it’s wrong that players are punished for wanting to provide for their future. Like Arundell, Willis rapidly adapted to his new environment and was a member of the Toulouse back-row that won the Top 14 title last season. The club, he said, “have reaffirmed my faith in rugby”.
They’re also improving his game. “Their ball skills in and around the contact are really impressive, their off-load ability,” he said of his new team-mates. “That is something that in training I’m working on, I want to develop my attacking game and be a big part of that attacking flow.”
Arundell will also develop at Racing. One of his fellow wings in Paris is the great Argentine Juan Imhoff. Asked in a recent interview what he thought of Imhoff, the Englishman said: “This guy is incredible. He’s 35 but runs likes he’s still 21.” He affectionately calls Imhoff ‘Padre’ (father) and to the Argentine, Arundell is ‘hijo’ (son).
Imhoff was just a couple of years older than Arundell when he left Argentina for Racing in 2011. Twelve years later things haven’t worked out too badly for him, what with three World Cups under his belt and 110 tries for Racing in 250 appearances.
It pays for players to broaden their horizons, as it does pundits to broaden their minds.