Furlong's full circle
Saturday’s showdown with France a reminder to Leinster prop of how far he has come in 12 months
As Lions talk builds and his reputation continues to grow, Tadhg Furlong sometimes has to remind his audience how new he is to all of this.
This week, Martin Johnson lent his name to the growing clamour for the Campile native’s inclusion on the plane to New Zealand on the back of a body of an impressive body of work this season. He is the form No 3, but on Saturday he will be reminded of how far he has come in the space of a year.
Last season’s 10-9 defeat to France is not a match anyone wants to remember, but it is seared into Furlong’s memory.
Mike Ross’s injury had allowed the then 23-year-old make his Six Nations debut a week previously against Wales and he kept his place for the trip to Paris. He replaced Nathan White after 62 minutes with Ireland camped on their own five-metre line and immediately threw himself into the action.
Rob Kearney managed to hold Damien Chouly up over the Irish line and after Romain Poite signalled a scrum, Furlong entered the longest six minutes of his professional career as Eddy Ben Arous put the squeeze on and the crowd endured set after set with several penalties thrown in.
Ultimately, a Johnny Sexton injury delay allowed Ireland get their scrum together but the ball spurted out of the scrum and Maxime Medard took full advantage to score.
It would prove to be the pivotal moment in the game and Furlong wasn’t seen in green again until the summer tour of South Africa when he began his bid to become Ireland’s regular starting tighthead prop; a battle he has now won.
As with most props, the difficult days are part of the rite of passage.
“Yeah, it was scrum after scrum and we got a good scrum at the end of it and the ball spurted out and they ended up scoring off it,” he recalled this week
“It was challenging, I suppose I never felt something like that before, the way it was coming across from the tighthead and the hooker and the loosehead walking around.
“It’s something you see again, Castres scrummage in a very similar way. They probably wouldn’t have the personnel to execute as well as France do. But you see it creeping up and you learn from your experience. I suppose that’s all you can do really, learn your lesson.
“I still don’t know everything, I still don’t know it all.
“You just try to get those situations, solve it on the field if you can and if you can’t just do your work, what way could the scrum have done it better?
“Scrummaging is very rarely one man or two men’s fault because there is so much going on, you’re relying so much on everyone else, they’re relying so much on you.
“The way you scrummage, the way you are as a unit, can overcome problems, not one man on his own.”
While the big moments have garnered attention, it the nuts and bolts of his game that have impressed Joe Schmidt and Greg Feek as he grows into the role so long held by John Hayes and Ross. Against Scotland and Italy, the scrum has had the upper hand, but this is a step up in class.
“We just try to get good ball to play off, really, try to paint good pictures for the referee and try to stay as straight as we can,” he said of Ireland’s set-piece.
“We got a little bit of reward against Scotland and against Italy as well after putting them under pressure early. There is plenty still to work on and France are a bit of a different challenge in the way that they scrummage (compared) to Scotland and Italy.
“They haven’t given their opposition much ball to play off at all. For us, that’s really low statistically and obviously we want to play off the back of the scrum, get our backs going and the ball moving so that’s a huge challenge.
“Rabah Slimani has been coming off the bench and he is a good scrummager off the angle. Both hookers are strong men and the looseheads as well. It’s just about us having a plan and getting the first part of our scrum right.
“France are playing really well. Being a prop and trying to analyse their scrum, there is that fear of if you don’t get your stuff right, you’re not on point, then it’s going to be a tough day at the office. There’s a fear that if you don’t work hard in defence then they could tear you open, they could create something out of nothing.”