Increase in game-time leaves Furlong primed for 'huge test'
Prop seizes chance in whirlwind year, writes Cian Tracey
The majority of the talk in UCD this week has been centred around the strides that Leinster have made in the last year but on Friday night, they will get the clearest indicator yet of where they really stand in the grand scheme of things.
On a personal level, the last 12 months could hardly have gone much better for Tadhg Furlong, especially when you consider that he only made his first European start last January.
As round five of the Champions Cup approaches this time around, Leinster have control of their own destiny at the top of the pool, while Furlong has cemented himself as first choice tighthead.
The Wexford native continues to brush off any talk of touring with the Lions this summer but the fact remains that if he maintains his outstanding form for the rest of the season, he is certain to be on the plane to New Zealand.
You can however understand Furlong's eagerness to remain grounded. His reputation may have soared during the November internationals, but with only 11 caps to his name, he knows that he has a long way to go yet.
Commitment "You have an obligation to the jersey and to make a commitment to it that you will perform as best you can and meet the standards of players that went before you," Furlong maintains.
"There's a lot of us without any medals in our back pockets and you look at the senior guys with a lot of them. As a younger player you try to pay homage to what the lads have done but, in your own way, move it on a bit as well.
"For lads to make European debuts last year, and then get knocked out in the pool stages with the tradition that the club has, does hurt and it definitely feeds the desire for this year."
Mike Ross has stepped up his recovery from the hamstring injury he suffered in November and despite the fact that he turned 37 last month, the veteran prop will feel as if he still has something to offer to Leinster.
Last season's only European win over Bath remains a focal point for this Leinster group, and, in particular, the younger players.
"At the time it was probably coming for a while," Furlong says, recalling his first Champions Cup start. "I think I'd made six bench appearances and I had a bit of exposure to Champions Cup so to get the first start was good. At the same time I was floating in and around Ireland camp for a good little stretch as well. Things move fast, especially for a young player.
"I've seen younger lads than myself with a sharper trajectory than I had. You don't really have time to look back as a professional rugby player.
"Games come thick and fast and it could be a dangerous game to start looking back and tapping yourself on the back: 'Oh, you did really well in the last year'. You could forget about the next week doing that.
"That game against Bath was really satisfying for me and the other (five) lads who started their first games as well even though Europe was very disappointing for us as a team last year. Lads I grew up playing with in the system and the academy so that was a good day.
"South Africa in the summer, the three Tests where I got a bit of game time and consistently played and prepped three weeks in a row for big games, that was a big learning curve and confidence-booster for me."
Marty Moore's departure has unquestionably aided Furlong's development and it is the increase in game time that he attributes to his stellar year, rather than any change he has made to his game.
"I don't think there has been a massive change in one big facet of the game," he insists. "It's just a bit more experience, a bit more match fitness and starting a few more games.
"Last year there was a time when it was me, Marty (Moore) and Mike Ross and you would nearly start one, sub one and rest one. When you have more involvement in match week you feel that little bit sharper.
"That time in the saddle is massive and you get more at ease with the whole process of big games and focus more on your own game. Last year was tough coming back from the World Cup and lads getting thrown straight back into Europe.
"There wasn't a massive amount of time in the saddle as a collective unit and it is nearly forgotten that we got to a Pro12 final and topped the league. The final didn't go our way but to still get there and for a lot of lads like myself to find out what it is like to play finals rugby was really positive.
"This year people have used that experience and brought a lot of energy. Stuart (Lancaster) has come in and added great energy as well."
Furlong will look to further enhance his reputation for the visit of Montpellier on Friday.
The French side's bruising pack that includes several South African and Georgian heavyweights will test the Leinster front-row but having stood up the power of the All Blacks scrum in November, the 24-year-old doesn't fear the challenge ahead.
"You take a bit of confidence from playing those games, those moments and the big crowds and big events and learning from it.
"They are a really well resourced, physical team. We know if we win we have a quarter-final place booked and we top the group. It is a huge test physically. It is a big game for the club, especially with how we went last year."