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Living the dream - Sam Arnold embracing life at Thomond Park
December 16 2017 2:00 PM
A he emerged from beneath the Thomond Park stands and into the cauldron last Saturday night, Sam Arnold took a moment to drink it in. Then, he gave a skyward look of gratitude and set about his task for the night.
Eighty minutes later, his Munster European debut had concluded with none other than Brian O'Driscoll naming him the man of the match after an all-action display that served as a reminder that this 21-year-old was always considered to be a bit special.
He had started a Champions Cup game for Ulster in Oyonnax when just a teenager, before opting to take up a contract with the province with whom he always had an affinity.
Landing Arnold was a coup for the Reds, but they are only now getting to see the best of him after an injury-hit first season that saw him fall down the midfield pecking order.
Now, 18 months into his time with the province, he is showing them what he can do and turning heads while doing so.
He is living in the moment and embracing the opportunity, but after all that he's been through he also took a second to drink it all in. What good was the journey if you can't enjoy the destination?
"I was walking down the tunnel and I looked up, the stand is just on top of you and for a second you do just think 'I'm here. I'm playing for Munster in Europe'. It was surreal," he recalled in a quiet corner of Munster's High Performance Centre on Tuesday.
"There were some parts in the game where I almost felt like I was in a dream, it was awesome.
"Not like I felt the occasion was too much, it was more, 'Am I really doing this?' It was an awesome feeling."
The dream was made all the more special by the nightmare he had endured en route.
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Moving to Munster was supposed to be the next step in a career that had hit all the right notes on the way up. A product of the Exiles system, he was Garry Ringrose's centre partner at U-20s and was picked in the Ulster first team before his mate in Leinster.
Given the talent available to Les Kiss in the midfield, his move to Munster made perfect sense for the player and the IRFU but his development was arrested and the frustration was only enhanced by the fact that his old colleagues from age-grade rugby were making big strides.
He tore his hamstring three times, then did his posterior cruciate ligament. When he recovered from that, his medial ligament went. Just when he cleared that hurdle, his calf went pop in pre-season.
Living in a new city, unable to impress at his new club for a 15-month period, wasn't easy.
"There was a time where I thought it was a big bad dream. I couldn't believe it," he said.
"I saw guys around my age going so well, like Joey (Carbery), Jacob (Stockdale), Garry (Ringrose) - I played U-20s with all of those guys and now they've gone on to win senior honours and I was sort of sitting there on the touchline watching training, thinking 'is this just a bad dream? It's a nightmare, I can't keep myself fit.'
"Then, when you come back playing it takes a while to get form and when I came back from those injuries on and off I wasn't playing good rugby, I didn't deserve to get myself in the team so it took a while to get the ball rolling - hopefully now I can just stay injury-free.
"It was a dark enough time, my head was a bit all over the place.
"There's a good group here, they took me under their wing and looked after me. I was probably pretty difficult to deal with at times, it's just one of the frustrations and being disappointed.
"I probably felt sorry for myself a bit as well, but the lads looked after me really well and any chance I get to repay them I do what I can."
In Keith Earls, he found a mentor who had endured similar experiences and who was able to offer some sage advice.
"I think I had to understand my body a bit better. Everyone's body is different, down here they're very good at understanding what I can and cannot do and what's good to keep me away from," he said.
"They managed me really well, I had a big, long chat with Keith Earls just before I got back playing in September because Earlsy had the same thing in his career, he missed about two entire seasons nearly.
"He was awesome, just talking to me about what I can do to get better - we discussed losing a bit of weight. I shed a bit of weight, I'm playing at 94kg now whereas at U-20s I would have been around 100kg. I'm all the better for it."
At a time when the IRFU are scouring the UK for Irish-qualified youngsters in an attempt to bolster the playing talent available, Arnold and his Munster colleague Alex Wootton are perfect poster boys for the Exiles.
Born in London, but raised in Kent, he was a talented sportsman who once had trials for Fulham and raced in the 100m, clocking a personal best of 11.3 seconds.
He took up rugby young, having been invited to the local club by a neighbour but, at 16, the oval ball became his primary focus.
He was awarded a scholarship to attend Cranleigh in Surrey and thrived under the tutelage of Andy Houston - the director of rugby who remains a big influence.
In turn, he began playing for Harlequins who offered him a professional contract on the proviso that he play scrum-half. It wasn't a runner.
The other option on the table was a move to Ireland who he had represented at U-18 club level.
He qualifies through his mother Jackie, who hails from Wexford. Ulster and Connacht wanted him and he chose to head for Ravenhill.
"I wanted to play in the centre, they told me that they didn't think I was big enough to play in the midfield so I was stubborn enough to say I'm going to Ulster to prove you wrong," he said of the decision.
There, he was fast-tracked - making his senior debut at 18 and playing in Europe a year later. It was a surprise when he left.
"I got very lucky with injuries when I was there (at Ulster) and it was the World Cup year so I played a lot of games then because of that, but I've always, even when I was a kid, the one rugby jersey I had in my drawer was a yellow Munster away jersey," he recalled.
"It might sound like a cliché, but part of me always wanted to be down here. It's in my granddad's blood. When my agent put the offer on the table I snapped at it."
The late George Morgan hailed from Bere Island off the Cork coast and, while Arnold has yet to visit, the connection was one he was fully aware of all the way up.
Indeed, the Munster midfield that takes to Welford Road is entirely rooted on Bere.
"It's quite funny, Rory Scannell's great granddad was also from Bere Island as well and there's only a few hundred people on the island so we think we're some sort of cousins," he revealed.
"We couldn't work it out, but my great granny and his great granddad have the same surname as well - it's funny.
"I spent a lot of time in Our Lady's Island in Wexford, growing up, always watched the rugby with my granny and granddad there - watching Ronan O'Gara, Peter Stringer, 'Drico' were playing so that's when I really started taking a serious interest."
So, when O'Driscoll handed him the award for his performance at Thomond Park last week, he was understandably chuffed.
"I was delighted to get that off Brian, growing up he was the player I'd have looked up to and wanted to be exactly like - I modelled myself on him," he said.
"It was nice, but it probably should have gone to Rhys Marshall or Chris Cloete - maybe because Brian was doing it he wanted to pick an outside centre."
After enduring his long wait, his focus right now is simply on playing and performing but if he keeps playing the way he did last week then higher honours will surely beckon.
Others have blazed a trail for him, now he is back on track to do the same.
"The one way I was trying to look at it was that if Joey, Garry and Jacob can do it, why can't I?
"It comes back to having the injury for 15 months straight, so I'm never going to look further than the week ahead - I love playing for Munster and I've worked so hard to get into the team that I'm not going to let that jersey go without a fight.
"Garry's a really good player, but he's also a really good person as well - a really, really good bloke. The same could be said of Joey and Jacob, so I was absolutely delighted to see them lads kick on but at the same time you're wishing it was you."
He may not have to wish for too much longer.
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