Thursday 27 April 2017

Neil Francis: The question has to be asked - just where did Tadhg Furlong come from?

Wexford prop's awesome November a wake-up call for provinces who missed talent hiding in plain sight

Tadhg Furlong on the charge against Australia
Tadhg Furlong on the charge against Australia
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The warm afterglow - the feel-good factor. This island basks in the success of its rugby team and can live on it till well after Christmas. A debt of gratitude so? The reason why people go to work with a bounce in their step this week - winning? Is it everything? Of course it is - no point having a scoreboard otherwise. The manner of the win last Saturday though was nearly as important . . . nearly.

So often in this nation's great sporting failures when we recount and recant the story there lies this familiar theme. Our sporting heroes would have left a bit of themselves in the dressing-room or on the training field.

What was so edifying about last Saturday and indeed most of the November series was if you shoved a dipstick into the tank it would come back out bone dry. All reserves of courage, bravery and resilience were spent! Luck too!

Fortune - she's not a particularly fickle goddess, she tends to stick with the guys who front up to adversity. Ireland gathered strength from distress and prevailed. There is nothing the nation appreciates more.

For the people who say that rugby is a minority sport played by a cabal of elite private schools, it is amazing how often the sport fortifies and rallies the country and in such huge numbers.

An all-island team drawn from all sectors of society that wins and wins in a manner that makes you proud.

Benefits

Another aspect of the team's success that cannot be underplayed is the economic benefits. What publican, restaurateur or hotelier in the barren month of November cannot throw a grateful nod in the direction of Webb Ellis for the bounty of the big autumnal rugby internationals?

Every pub in Ireland who had eir Sport was packed to the rafters for the Chicago extravaganza. The capital was jointed, even for the Canada game.

If the guestimate for a Six Nations economic spend is €35m what did the four-match programme yield for this country? Trickledown economics all the way to the hot dog vendors. It brings into a strong perspective the changing status of the November internationals.

The quality of the matches this November were such that it brought a restatement of equilibrium. What we witnessed in November was far superior to the Six Nations in terms of content, grade and calibre of rugby.

Do I want to see Ireland play Australia and New Zealand in a meaningful Test and be competitive or do I want to watch low-grade tonkings of Scotland and Italy?

The Six Nations has been tiresome and predictable for a number of years now. The autumnal Tests energised everyone because the games were highly competitive and unpredictable.

Anybody who calls these matches friendlies - all you have to do is cast your mind back to the New Zealand game in Dublin.

Tournament rugby is great but the recent matches lit a touch paper on an enhanced level of atmosphere. The noise and buzz in the Aviva last Saturday was deafening and constant. True, the excitement quotient and the skill levels brought it out in the crowd and I can't remember noise like that from a Six Nations game in a long time. The appeal of the game, particularly in the November series, has changed.

All of the matches played certainly enhanced our viewing pleasure, but every time these series end I think of how exhausted the players must be. I often feel that the term 'player welfare' is like a little boy being reminded by his mother that he should say please and thank you when he interacts with other people.

Our governing bodies tell us that 'player welfare' is of paramount importance. Yes indeed England conclude their four-Test series against Australia next week; after that all of their elite players play a condensed, far more competitive Heineken Cup for two weeks, domestic league immediately after that, more Heineken Cup in January and then straight into the Six Nations . . .

Maybe what they mean is that when the players are invalided out they will be on welfare because they can't walk anymore. Yes indeed, 'player welfare'. Ireland's players must be exhausted and a lot of their injuries and niggles are down to fatigue.

When I saw the indefatigable Jamie Heaslip being substituted last Saturday, I thought now there's a moment - Ireland's No 8 normally plays every second of every match. His performances against New Zealand (twice) and Australia were so consistently good that you felt that the circuits and the wiring must have been overheating as the Australian game went into the last 10 minutes.

Competition

People will say that Heaslip's recent form has come about because of competition for places. I'm not sure about that! I feel that Heaslip's performances have never dropped below a certain high standard.

He has been Ireland's best and most reliable tackler in the last eight years. Quite often his numbers go into the teens but it is the zeroes on the other side of the column that tells you about his quality. He rarely misses a tackle. He rarely misses a game. It told you something about the burn and the exertion levels over the last four weeks if Heaslip was called ashore.

However, the competition for back-row places is simply ridiculous. We may by the time it gets to February have no idea what our best back-row combination is even if everyone is fit.

One person who is now certain of a starting position, if there is such a thing in Joe Schmidt's squad, is Tadhg Furlong.

I am quite sure that he will get a few column inches this week for his consistent excellence of performance. He did quite a number of remarkable things in open play during the November series but Ireland's try in the 65th minute of the Australian game came principally because of his intervention before Keith Earls got to dot down in the left-hand corner.

Furlong not so much got across the gain line but thundered over it with three Aussies on the floor before he was halted. There were an additional six or seven Australians all at the tackle scene who, although they barely committed themselves, still had to retreat past the ball and hold on just in case Furlong managed to get up again and go through the ruck. CJ Stander took it up again and that rarest commodity in Test rugby - space - appeared for Earls. The winger touched it down but the try belonged to the Wexford man.

Anything can happen between now and February and then from February to June but for Furlong a probable Six Nations campaign and a certainty of a Lions tour.

Furlong at 24 has 10 years ahead of him at this level but the question at this moment in time is not what can he do but more importantly where did he come from?

Did he just arrive?

How come at age 24 this type of performance that we have just witnessed? Did it just come out of the ether?

Did anyone know who he was when he made his Leinster debut back in 2013?

Was his rise to prominence an accident or something that had been a product of great planning?

Furlong has 56 caps for Leinster. Mike Ross was the man for such a long time that to amass even 56 caps was an achievement. It is an even bigger achievement when you consider that Michael Bent has 70 caps as loose and tighthead. How many times did Furlong not get the opportunity to play because Bent was picked ahead of him?

It is incredible to think that when John Hayes' career was over we thought the end of the world had come and now when Mike Ross' career is coming to an end, the sky that we thought was going to fall down will not because Furlong comes out of the mist. But the players like him were there all along in plain sight. A wake-up call for all the provincial teams: how much longer would Furlong have waited behind Bent before he said, 'Feck this for a game of soldiers'?

Furlong gets to the pinnacle without ever having a consistent run of games his talent deserved from 2013-15. If Joe Schmidt can get performances of such quality from a player that nobody within the provincial ranks would have ever considered, how many more have we let through the fishing nets?

A gem uncovered and the miners were digging in another cave.

Irish Independent

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