When Rory Arnold departed in only the 23rd minute of Stade Toulousain’s European Champion’s Cup semi-final against the Exeter Chiefs, most of the French club’s hopes of victory went with him.
The towering ex-Brumbies lock fractured his forearm, an injury which may keep him out of the Wallabies picture for most, if not all, of the forthcoming Rugby Championship. The tournament is due to begin on November 7th and run until December 12th.
There are two major ironies shadowing Arnold’s injury. On the one hand, it is highly likely that the recent relaxation of the Giteau Law on overseas eligibility was made with him as one of the key players in mind.
The second irony is that since his arrival in the South-West of France, Arnold has succeeded in developing exactly those aspects of his game which might otherwise have impaired his Wallaby selection chances in 2020.
Make no mistake, 30-year-old ‘Three Storey Rory’ is currently playing at the peak of his powers, and newly appointed Wallaby forwards coach Geoff Parling had already hinted that he would have been one of Australia’s starting tight five when available:
“Obviously it takes a little while to get the very specific details so we have a feel for what it might be, but we still need a little more information on how long [he might be out].
“It’s unfortunate for Rory, he’s definitely someone who came into discussion to join us for this Rugby Championship, but now we’re just going to re-evaluate.”
That is media-speak for ‘he would have been an automatic starter’.
Arnold was giving his club the set-piece stability they needed against Exeter’s powerful forward pack. Toulouse were 6-0 ahead on the scoreboard and dominating territory and possession of the ball before he left. Afterwards, they lost control, and the remainder of the game by 12 points to 28.
The biggest single advance in Rory Arnold’s game since moving to France has been his assumption of lineout calling duties. Previously, in partnership with either Adam Coleman or Izack Rodda for the Wallabies, or Sam Carter for the Brumbies, it had been the other guy who had called the lineout. Now Rory is the main man, and clearly enjoying his new responsibilities.
While Arnold was on the field against Exeter and Ulster (in the previous week’s quarter-final), Toulouse won all 12 of their lineouts for a 100 per cent record. With him off the field, they lost three throws out of seven over the two games. Exeter lost two of their first three with Arnold present, they won 14 on the trot after he left.
Arnold finished the 2019 World Cup as Australia’s senior second row, and it was vital for him to include lineout-calling in his resume with Lukhan Salakaia-Loto mooted as his partner in the Wallaby boiler-house. The Queensland lineout had been operating at a meagre 79 per cent success rate in four games against its closest rivals (the Brumbies and the Rebels) over the final weeks of the season.
Successful lineout calling begins with a recognition of your opponent’s defensive tendencies. One of the fundamentals is knowing whether he/she is going to be timing his counter off the movements of the receiver, or the action of the thrower. They cannot do both.
Against Ulster in the quarter-final, Arnold’s opponents (Ulster number 5 Iain Henderson and his second-row partner Alan O’Connor) are looking straight down the line towards the Toulousain hooker:
With the defence timing off the thrower, any movement by the receiver and lifters will disrupt their ability to make an effective counter-jump:
Toulouse number 6 François Cros bounces out of the line, and Arnold shuffles down one spot, leaving the Ulster jumpers a crucial step behind in the competition.
Against Exeter, Rory Arnold was asked the alternate question:
Here the Chiefs’ main combatant (Jonny Hill) is looking straight across the line at Arnold, looking to time the counter off his movements. Again, the Australian makes the right decision. He knows that if the ball is thrown in with no prior movement by the receiver, he will be in position A1 to win it:
The defender is a step slow in his reactions, and once more Toulouse win the penalty as the maul forms.
Arnold’s lineout-calling security allowed a few embellishments later in the game against Ulster:
There is a fake jump by Jerome Kaino at the back as Cros peels around the tail of the line, while the ball is thrown straight over the top to Toulouse number 12 Pita Ahki. Already some inviting gaps have been levered open in the Ulster defence from first phase.
Arnold’s presence at the front of the line had a disconcerting effect on Exeter hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, who missed on two of his first three attempts to get the ball over the top of the skyscraper in rouge et noir:
Stade Toulousain like to play an attacking game with a heavy emphasis on the offload, and Rory Arnold’s skill on the pass has also developed since his days in Canberra:
This is the kind of flat skip pass which he would not have been asked to make for the Brumbies, but the skill (and the confidence to use it) is now there in a new playing culture. Space duly opens up for Cheslin Kolbe on the opposite side of the field.
In his short cameo against the Chiefs, Rory Arnold had just enough time to show he’d bought into his new club’s offloading game:
There is little doubt he would have tucked the ball under an arm and taken it into contact in his previous playing lifetime in Canberra. In South-West France, he has to help keep play fluid, and the ball moves on through his second-row partner Joe Tekori.
More is asked of Arnold in defence now, too. As probably the most mobile tight forward at the club, he has to range wider in defence and connect with the backs, Scott Fardy style:
In the following example, Arnold shifts across the base of the ruck to become the fourth defender on the opposite side. This means that he is trusted to make a tackle on an Ulster back (Matt Faddes), which then sets the platform for a turnover counter-ruck by the rouges et noirs:
At the same time, Arnold’s known positives remain as strong as ever. His cleanout work, which I examined in this article before the last World Cup, is still outstanding in one-on-one situations. Jack Nowell is built like a number 7 and is one of the best on-ball backs in the world, but he gets swamped by an octopus-like cleanout in the following example:
Nowell is in good position to win a turnover as the ball goes to ground, but he pulls out of the contest against Arnold as if he has been stung by a bee!
If he cannot play any part at all in the Rugby Championship, Three Storey Rory will be sorely missed by Dave Rennie and new Wallaby forwards coach Geoff Parling.
I suspect they were banking on him not only to provide lineout ball, but call the set-piece as well. They will not want to burden Lukhan Salakaia-Loto’s young shoulders with that extra responsibility, so that means the choice will shift down to one of Rob Simmons or Matt Philip, or Adam Coleman or Izack Rodda if either is picked from overseas. For very different reasons, none of those are ideal.
Perhaps the biggest loss is that Arnold is still developing his game at the age of 30, and many of his incremental improvements are in the skill areas demanded by the Toulouse club’s explosive offloading style. Rennie will want to play a movement-based game, so they would have been of value for his Wallabies too.
Whatever happens in the near future, Rory Arnold will in all likelihood be ready and able to play a significant part in the World Cup cycle up to 2023. Players who are still improving, and adding new skills in their 30s are green and gold dust.
If Giteau’s Law was relaxed for the sake of just one player, that would have to be the skyscraper – Rory Arnold.