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FEATURE The bedrock of the Lions scrum

The bedrock of the Lions scrum
3 years ago

We live in times when universal agreement is rare; an age where social media has ensured that everyone not only has an opinion but can share it at the touch of a button.

Discord and disagreement can be found anywhere you choose to look… except when it comes to Tadhg Furlong.

When melding a quartet of teams into one every four years, the personal and parochial ensure unanimous selections are rarer than a scrum completed at the first time of asking. But was there anyone – anyone, anywhere – who didn’t have Ireland’s tight-head prop inked in as an ironclad certainty for the British and Irish Lions touring party for this summer?

If there was ever an iota of doubt surrounding the 28-year-old’s place, it was only due to injury as, between lockdown then calf and hamstring complaints, he went virtually a year without a game between February of 2020 and last January. 

Then, upon his return just in time for the Six Nations, he used the championship to again display just how he has managed to become all things to all men.

With 25 minutes gone in the win over Scotland, Ireland were in their own 22 with the ball in the hands of a prop. Not, traditionally, a promising start to any counterattack.

One shimmy sent poor George Turner to the deck with his feet and hands stretching towards different postcodes, while another followed split seconds after to make light work of the attempted tackle of Finn Russell

Jonathan Bradley

Furlong, of course, is no traditional prop. One shimmy sent poor George Turner to the deck with his feet and hands stretching towards different postcodes, while another followed split seconds after to make light work of the attempted tackle of Finn Russell. 

A clip tailormade for viral consumption, it was no surprise to see it shared far and wide in the aftermath of the Irish victory. 

No tight-head gets selected on the basis of such extra-curricular activities alone of course, but Furlong’s deft touches do not come at the expense of set-piece expertise. Six days later and with Ireland leading England 23-6 on the hour mark, the Leinster man demolished a Red Rose scrum that Eddie Jones’s men had favoured upon being awarded a penalty. With a quarter to go, it felt a victory-sealing moment, all the more so for Furlong’s cathartic roar in celebration as Andy Farrell’s side brought to an end a worrying two-year streak of physical domination at the hands of the World Cup runners-up.

Two such varied pieces of play are the Wexford native in microcosm.  A man at once modern and old-school, capable of reframing what we expect from his position while simultaneously excelling in what has been expected of it since the dawn of time. 

Ireland's <a href=Tadhg Furlong evades the tackle of Finn Russell of Scotland” class=”wp-image-16259″ />
Tadhg Furlong bamboozled several Scottish defenders with his footwork when Ireland won at Murrayfield earlier this year (Getty Images)

World-class in the strictest sense of the phrase, it is a testament to Furlong’s pre-eminence that there remain whispers of moving Andrew Porter back to loose-head where he started his career. Porter, who would have been a touring Lion himself this summer if not for a toe injury sustained in the Rainbow Cup, was among Ireland’s very best players through the belated conclusion to the 2020 Six Nations and the Autumn Nations Cup.

But, when Furlong made his comeback a week before the 2021 Six Nations with 40 minutes in Leinster colours, he’d be restored to the Ireland match-day 23 straight away and needed just two cameos from the bench to win back his starting spot. 

That rapid restoration to the run-on side is in-keeping with the recent tradition of a national squad who have in essence had only three first-choice tight-heads since the turn of the century – John Hayes, Mike Ross and now Furlong. 

Given his own remarkable longevity at the hooker position, Rory Best played at close quarters with all three in at least parts of their primes. 

For him, Furlong’s emergence can be viewed as nothing less than a demarcation point in Irish front-row play.

“He’s redefined the Irish tight-head and to a large extent the European tight-head,” says Best, who scrummaged alongside Furlong in a few of the most significant victories in Irish history.

He is capable of doing absolutely everything. He really does tick all those boxes. For me, he’s not just the modern-day tight-head, he’s the modern-day rugby player.

Rory Best

“We’ve had guys like him from New Zealand, I think back to what John Afoa was capable of doing, and with the Australians you didn’t get that scrummaging but they could do similar around the pitch.

“But in Ireland, in the UK, even in France, it was always about picking a tight-head who could scrum. Then all of a sudden this guy appears and not only could he scrum, he could throw passes, he could offload, play little out-balls, he could sidestep, he’s a great tackler. 

“He is capable of doing absolutely everything. And the thing with him is, he’s enormous and ultimately that’s the way the game has gone in the last ten years because there’s such a focus now on big athletes but big athletes aren’t always smart rugby players. He is. Tadhg really does tick all those boxes. 

“For me, he’s not just the modern-day tight-head, he’s the modern-day rugby player.”

A rare blend of ability, physical attributes and rugby smarts, there is a crucial fourth element to the cocktail too.

Not only is Furlong prodigiously talented but his willingness to reveal such significant chunks of personality has set him apart from others of similar stature in Ireland. Not necessarily a traditional extrovert, it was only last year that Johnny Sexton reflected he had “come out of his shell” having been surprised to find himself elevated into Andy Farrell’s six-strong leadership group.

But tales of a young Furlong practicing his tackle technique on calves on the family farm in Campile are now folklore, as is the yarn that, when turning out as a youngster for the rural New Ross RFC, an opponent who obdurately refused to surrender the ball was simply lifted and carried back towards his own line. 

Nor has pro rugby dulled the sense of humour in a man who once told his Ireland Under-20s coach Mike Ruddock that he’d like to be known as ‘Jukebox’. Why? Well, because the hits keep coming. 

Ireland prop Tadhg Furlong scores a try against Scotland
Rory Best watched Furlong develop into a world-class tight-head prop in the Ireland front-row (Getty Images)

As the gap between the finely honed athletes and those watching them from the terraces widens, there is something delightfully anachronistic about a bonafide superstar once described by a Leinster nutritionist as being suspected of having a potato addiction and whose idea of carb loading before the traditional Boxing Day derby with Munster is to throw a few more roasties in with his Christmas dinner. 

Interviewers have gotten their fair share of mileage out of the extended clan too. Whether it’s father James – himself a former prop at New Ross RFC – and his inability to congratulate his son on the historic beating of the All Blacks in Chicago five years ago because he doesn’t believe in mobile phones or Furlong’s nonagenarian grandmother and her threatening of Johnny Sexton should the out-half miss any of her Tadhg’s hard-earned scrum penalties have all added to the appeal of Irish Rugby’s most meme-ready individual.

If this persona seems something more intangible or irrelevant to on-field success, consider this observation from Best.

“With Tadhg, you know one of his greatest strengths is that he is just so likeable as a person,” he says. “Because I think that really helped him when he first came into the Ireland squad.

“When he first came into the squad before 2015, basically as the fifth choice (prop) at a World Cup, it meant he was going to have to cover both sides of the scrum and he was getting flung across to loose-head.

“And look, to be honest, he wasn’t particularly good at it compared to what he is now but he rolled up his sleeves and got on with it. Because of that work ethic, and because of his character, you gave him a lot more time.

Watch Tadhg and you will see someone who tries to get better every single time he does something. He’s a great example for anyone.

Rory Best

“You wanted him to do well. You willed him to do well, really.

“I remember that second Test in South Africa (Furlong’s first international start) then the next year and at that stage it was still a case of ‘we’re not sure how good this guy is going to be even if we think it might be very good’.

“At that time, against that team, the fear was still like any young prop – can he scrummage?

“Then we go out and have a couple of big penalties at the scrum when we were under real pressure. At that moment I’m thinking ‘yeah, this guy has it and he has it not just physically but he’s got it mentally’.

“Watch Tadhg and you see someone who tries to get better every single time he does something. He’s a great example for anyone.”

Combine it all, and in terms of euros and cents, it’s a heady brew for a marketing department. Ireland’s best player is also their most colourful and charismatic, not to mention the poster-child for their trumpeted varied player pathway rather than someone treading the familiar path from south Dublin super-school to Leinster and onto Ireland. As New Ross RFC’s youth coordinator Maurice Quirke noted recently: “He’s our first everything – our first pro, our first Ireland international and our first Lion”.

In short, he is the IRFU’s most valuable asset by a considerable margin. And, yet, recent events have done nothing to diminish the notion that he is also fast becoming their greatest flight risk.

Tadhg Furlong carries ball for the British and Irish Lions against New Zealand
Furlong started all three Tests in 2017 when the British and Irish Lions drew their series with New Zealand (Getty Images)

Ireland’s two-game series against Japan and USA will allow a combined 9,000 spectators to attend the Aviva Stadium, the first time they have played in front of a home crowd since prior to the pandemic in February 2020. As with so many sporting bodies, the resulting losses of expected gate receipts have left a crater in the balance sheet.

Amid the gloomy prognosis emerging in the pandemic’s earliest days was the fear that Irish Rugby simply could not survive without drastic measures.

While redundancies have occurred, squad sizes have been trimmed and all branches of the organisation will be operating under a reduced budget moving forward, it is to the IRFU’s credit that with the exception of the retiring CJ Stander they have managed to keep all of their front-line stars in Ireland, a fact made all the more crucial given the continued unwritten rule that only those plying their trade with one of the four provinces will be eligible for national selection. 

Furlong, though, caused something of a stir by opting only to sign a one-year deal meaning a likely return to the negotiating table before this calendar year is out.

It was, the union’s high performance director David Nucifora stressed recently, the player’s own decision.

“The players all looked at the contract negotiations during this period a bit differently,” said the Australian in his summer media briefing.

 “We’d have loved to have contracted Tadhg for longer than one year, but that was his choice to sit back and say ‘well, maybe the landscape will have changed in 12 months and it will be different’.

“And that’s his prerogative to do that.

Should Furlong, already a three-Test Lion from 2017, return home in August having tamed a Springbok scrum last seen dismantling England in a World Cup final, it would be no exaggeration to say he can name his price.

Jonathan Bradley

“We’re happy that he’s staying on, and hopefully when we get back to the negotiating table with him and other players we’ll be able to convince him that staying on is the best thing for their rugby. But that’s a choice that they’ll have to make.

“We’re hopeful. I know the players appreciate what Irish rugby does for them but at the end of the day it’s an individual decision they all have to make as to whether they want to stay.”

In a sport where injury hovers like an unwanted party guest at every turn, to turn down the added security of an additional year or two is a rare and noteworthy stance, yet this hedging of bets could be about to pay dividends. 

Should Furlong, already a three-test Lion from the 2017 series in New Zealand, return home in August having tamed a Springbok scrum last seen dismantling England in a World Cup final win, it would be no exaggeration to say he can name his price. 

For even if it isn’t the IRFU, you can be sure there’ll be plenty willing to match it. 

More stories from Jonathan Bradley

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