Saturday 15 December 2018

Ambition to add new star burns bright for keeper of the flame Furlong

Leinster's Tadhg Furlong. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster's Tadhg Furlong. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Tadhg Furlong never had to go looking for Mike Ross when he first entered the Leinster Academy. Mike Ross went looking for Tadhg Furlong.

He already knew what he would find.

"I'd seen him in the U-20 World Cup and he packed down against Peter Kitshoff who was already a Currie Cup winner and one of the rising stars of the game," recalls Ross, before the memory is tinged with admiration. "But Tadhg did a job that day."

Like any squad with aspirations to keep on improving, Ross knew that it was his selfless responsibility to ensure that his younger rivals improved, even if he knew he might ultimately be the victim of such generosity.

But that must be how the wheels turn. The master nurtures the apprentice and when the mastering is completed, the veteran bows out. Then, it is the one-time apprentice who continues that process.

"I felt he just had what it would take but I must admit I was worried about his size more than his technique," says Ross, fulcrum of the scrum when Leinster launched their maiden European dynasty in 2009.

Flame

"There was hardly a pick on him and, although he had the skills that everyone appreciates now, there was a small doubt in my mind if he could obtain, and maintain, the necessary bulk required for the position. But he has and he's driven it on.

"It would be much easier for me to ignore him. What have I to gain? But it's about what's best for the team, so you pull him in, watch videos, go through the technique, pass on what you feel might help. Then it's up to him."

Although they seemed to be generations apart, Ross already married with kids and 13 years the elder, they shared a farming background and the front-row union's unique bond, where physique and psychology are tested at every set-piece.

"As a young fella coming in, Rossy would put his arm around you and bring you up and look at video and go back through the training session with you," says Furlong.

"He'd go looking for clips of me playing for Clontarf when I moved up first to play a bit of AIL, just to go through stuff with me. Rossy was a hell of a scrummager and I suppose a really helping hand into the game. I'm really good friends with Rossy, I chat to him still.

"So if you take something away from what he did for me when I was coming through the academy, you'd kind of like to give that back to the academy lads coming through now."

The torch keeps passing. Sometimes, the flame flickers, worryingly.

Thoughts of tomorrow are framed by a reminder of Furlong's last significant encounter with Eddy Ben Arous, the Racing loosehead; they briefly encountered each other when the latter was a sub in 2017 but he didn't feature this spring.

But two years ago, Furlong was sprung into the fray for an injured Ross in the 2016 Six Nations but after an incident-free afternoon against Wales, not even Joe Schmidt could sugar-coat a torrid afternoon in Paris when Maxime Medard scored the game's decisive try after a six-minute set of scrums during which the Wexford man gasped for air. He would not be seen again until the summer.

"Everyone has a day like that," says Ross. "But not everyone goes on in life and doesn't have another day like that. And that sums up what he has done since then.

"We went through it all in the aftermath, tinkered with a few things and he has never looked back. And whether it is the Lions or the Grand Slam, he has passed every test with flying colours."

One suspects the renewal of the behemoths will not be so definitively one-sided this time around.

"It was a tough day for me," he admits, "but at the same time when you have bad days it is easy to be self-critical but the thing you learn is you are doing a lot of stuff well, you don't need to go overboard because then you only see negatives.

"Or you see a young prop and maybe he doesn't have a great day but what you say to him is don't try and rip up the script, don't try to change everything.

"Just tweak one or two things, learn your lessons, understand the feeling and how you can fix that at a scrum or how you can fix that one-on-one.

"Don't get too carried away by the highs but don't get too carried away by the lows."

Brothers

For all his achievements at such a young age for one in his position - Ross, remember, was in his 30th year when repatriated to Ireland from exile and near-retirement - Furlong now yearns to win something with his band of brothers.

The parallels with 2009's Grand Slam and European collection of winners is uncanny but - not yet anyhow - unconsummated.

Hence, the responsibility loads quite a burden upon the 25-year-old's broad shoulders to write a new chapter in a story that, when he entered its pages, seemed to lose the precise plotting that had preceded him, given Leinster's four-year domination of the competition was then followed by five fallow years.

"When I came in, you never really felt part of it," he says of those initial triumphs; his first day of "school" arrived in 2011, shortly after Leinster's second European title in three seasons; they would soon add a third.

"When I came into the academy I had long lay-off with a shoulder injury so I wouldn't have trained with the seniors.

"I would have been in early and out early. I suppose ever since then we've gotten to semi-finals but we've never really pushed on and I suppose as a young fella you want to get that respect.

"You want to be able to stand over something from your time, and I think that's something that massively drives it on. It's something that I've thought about over the last few years.

"It's something that you really want to succeed at and it means a massive amount to me.

"When you talk about adding a star to the jersey, the drive to succeed and be a part of something special like teams before us, that's what drives you on to try and be as good as you can every day, and try to get better when you come into work every day.

"Then, when it comes to the week of the game, you're literally just focusing on - I know it sounds boring but it's incredibly true - your job, trying to maximise your preparation, leaving no stone unturned, and getting yourself in the best physical and mental state to go out and play a game of rugby on the weekend."

And if this week and this day and this game are similar to what we have come to expect from Tadhg Furlong, he will have earned the right to pin a fourth star to his chest.

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