'He doesn’t like to be bothered' - Tadhg Furlong on his local pub's fund to buy his dad his first mobile phone
It does not take a lot to make Tadhg Furlong feel uncomfortable. Mention the YouTube clip of him on the charge against New Zealand last November and the Irish tighthead prop shifts and squirms in a seat that barely accommodates his hulking 19-stone frame.
“It was a nice run for two yards,” Furlong says, entirely ignoring the manner in which he had left three All Blacks goliaths in Owen Franks, Brodie Retallick and Kieran Read sprawled on the Dublin turf. Together with his ferocious scrummaging, Furlong was the breakout individual performer of the autumn internationals. By the turn of the year, most pundits had pencilled the 24-year-old, who starts his first Six Nations match against Scotland on Saturday, into their Lions XV, which he found even more mortifying.
“I find that embarrassing because I only played three games in the autumn,” Furlong said. “I don’t see myself there yet. Clearly it is a dream for every rugby player but I feel I have a lot to prove to myself in the Six Nations. Maybe then you can start targeting it but I think it is dangerous to start thinking about anything like that right now.”
Engaging company over the course of an hour-long interview, Furlong’s demeanour changes when our photographer asks to take some pictures. He politely accommodates each request to cross and then uncross his arms or stare in a particular manner, but keeps asking: “Is this the last one?” The photographer, as is their wont, kept asking for one more shot. When the 10-minute ordeal was at an end, Furlong relaxed again like a diver coming up for air.
There are hermits who crave the spotlight more than Furlong. To understand why, you need to head 100 miles south of Dublin to the village of Campile in the county of Wexford. There you will find the Furlong farm, a modest holding of around 60 acres and 50 cows. Furlong grew up playing Gaelic football in the summer and rugby in the winter.
Mostly, though, he spent his time mucking out on the farm. “I loved it,” he says. “Even now you won’t be long home and father will have a shovel in your hand.”
His father, James, was also a prop for New Ross, their local club. From the time that Furlong was six, he came down to training where James coached an under-12 team trying to tackle the older children. “Those are great memories,” Furlong said. “You are representing the town, but there’s a huge social element to it too. My father is still there with his same group of friends in the clubhouse after games, working their elbows.”
James is a traditional sort, not too fussed by modern technology. When Furlong told journalists that his dad did not own a mobile phone, their local pub, Hart’s Bar, started a collection. The “Buy James Furlong a mobile phone fund” is still going.
Furlong bursts out laughing when I ask if his dad is on email. “No, no, no. He has got the mentality that he likes his own space and time. He doesn’t like to be bothered. His mentality is, ‘If someone wants me then they can pop into the house and get me.’ It is not a bad way to be in the modern world.”
Furlong has succumbed to social media, but you will not find any selfies on his feed. “I also like my space and being off the grid in my personal life,” Furlong said. “I’m not going to post what I am having for dinner. That’s not really me.”
He prefers his box sets, which he often indulges in at the expense of a thriving social life. “When you are around rugby, it is intense and I like just switching off my brain and doing absolutely nothing and being by myself,” Furlong said. “It is weird to say you are a bit of a loner.”
Until he was 16, Furlong split his time between rugby and Gaelic football. There is another video clip of him showing impressive skill and speed playing the latter in an under-14 county final. “There’s me, this chubby kid, tearing up the sideline,” Furlong said. “I have no idea where it came from but it just resurfaces every now and again. I’m like, ‘Oh jeez, not again.’”
At this point, Furlong decided to concentrate on rugby and joined Leinster’s sub-academy in 2010. The move to both a big city and a professional academy came as a shock.
“I did not touch a weight until I left school but I guess I was naturally strong from doing work around the farm from a young age,” Furlong said.
He also played up to his country bumpkin image within the academy, creating a rumour that his father was a truffle hunter. That soon took on a life of its own.
His Leinster apprenticeship was a long one. A reconstructed shoulder and lacerated kidney did not help. Yet all the time Furlong was learning. In training, he was scrummaging against Ireland looseheads Cian Healy and Jack McGrath, both of whom he confirms “handed me my a--- on a plate a few times”. Just as importantly he had the experience of Mike Ross to call upon – “he’s been incredible for me”.
You sense scrummaging appeals to his farmer’s sensibilities: encountering problems and solving them on the hoof.
“You look at the opposition hooker and tighthead, the way they are setting up, what the loosehead is doing with his head and his foot positioning; all that stuff,” Furlong said. “Then when you are in there it is all by feel. You can’t see what you look like, but when you analyse scrums, you can see what you looked like but you need to remember what you felt like when you were there. A lot of it comes down to the feel.”
The learning curve at international level has been even steeper and more rapid. Coming on as a replacement against France in last year’s Six Nations, Furlong quickly found himself in an uncompromising position.
“All the weight from their tighthead was coming through and their loosehead was pulling around,” Furlong said. “I was thinking, ‘Jeez, this loosehead isn’t even under my chest, he is pulling out.’ That was the first time I had come up against that type of scrum and I thought, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ I had no answers. It was not a good day at the office. When that happens, you store it and try to understand how not to let it happen again.”
The tour to South Africa last summer gave him the self-belief that he belonged at that level. But no matter what he has done before, no matter how much praise he has garnered, Furlong maintains that the Six Nations is the ultimate test for a prop. It is one he believes he is yet to pass.
“I have a lot to prove to myself,” Furlong said. “I have a lot to work on. The Six Nations was disappointing for me last year and I have to prove that I can play at that level.”