With a newly inked contract in his back pocket and a pep talk from Andy Farrell fresh in the mind, Sam Arnold was in a perfect position to reboot his season in the bonus-point win over Zebre at the weekend.
Two tries against the Italians in a 33-5 victory at Thomond Park last Saturday was a dream scenario for the 21-year-old centre making his comeback from a three-week suspension and in search of atonement for the red card he believes cost Munster the game at his old province Ulster on January 1.
“My first and hopefully my last one,” Arnold said of his disciplinary blemish. “It is good to be back playing with the boys and I felt like I owed it to make up to them.
“I probably put that blame for the New Year’s Day game on myself for us losing that match, so it was nice to bounce back (against Zebre) and get the bonus point.
“It is always nice to get a couple of tries. I was actually pretty disappointed that I turned the ball over a few too many times. The main thing for me is that we are winning and that we are getting bonus points. We are working with new combinations as well at the minute, so it is great to see guys getting chances.”
Arnold’s performance was a reminder that Munster have a young but viable candidate for a regular starting place in midfield, even when the squad’s internationals, Jaco Taute and Chris Farrell, are available to fill the red No. 13 jersey. Having signed a two-year contract extension last week, he is in prime position to further stake a claim this Saturday at Cardiff Blues.
Prior to his disciplinary ban for a dangerous tackle on Ulster’s Christian Lealiifano, Arnold had been in flying form, making the most of his opportunity to shine after a first season at Munster reduced to a single appearance by knee injuries.
With Taute, Farrell, and Dan Goggin sidelined, the English-born former Ulster academy player, who had moved south for the 2016-17 season, was next in line to partner Rory Scannell in the centre when Munster’s Champions Cup pool campaign resumed in December. Back-to-back games in the wins over Leicester Tigers and another 80 minutes in the St Stephen’s Day loss at home to Munster cemented the partnership before the fateful trip to Belfast.
The ban cost him the chance of selection for the final two pool games, by which time Farrell had returned to full fitness, but his and Scannell’s call-ups to Ireland’s Six Nations squad saw Arnold partner a fit-again Goggin against Zebre as they made their respective returns to first-team action.
“It was great to see Dan back and play with him for the first time for Munster. He had a nasty knee injury that I actually had last year, so I know how long that road to come back, so it was awesome to see him back playing.
“Dan is an unbelievable player, he is a big fella, but he has great hands, he has a great kicking game as well and you can see how physical he was tonight, so, like, I think it is really exciting for us to have that competition in the midfield at the minute. It is guys like myself and Dan trying to push on and push Rory and Jaco and Chris to the next level and hopefully push on ourselves as well.
“Guys know if they slip up there is someone there to slot straight back in and I think it is important to have that kind of pressure environment within the squad.
“You look at the depth of the French teams and a team like Saracens, for example, would have, I think we are starting to get that now. I think it is important to have that competition, but I think it would be rare that five of us are fit at the same time.”
Arnold got a taste of life in the Irish camp last week after he was called up to Carton House to train with Joe Schmidt’s squad, including plenty of familiar Munster faces ahead of last Saturday’s Italy game.
“It was a really good experience. It was great to be up there and get a feel for the environment during a match week, the guys were unbelievable. They helped me out a lot up there.
“It was good to have the older heads around, like Murray and Earlsy there as well. If I had a question they would be the first lads I would go to and ask. It was awesome to have them and obviously Pete as well. There is no better man to ask than Pete as well.
“I had a good chat with (defence coach) Andy Farrell when I was there. I have spoken to Joe. I think I know what Joe wants me to do going forward. I sat down with Andy when I was there and we discussed what I need to do to try and take my game to the next level, so I would have that in the back of my mind when I am playing, 100%.”
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