Sunday 22 September 2019

'He's an inspiration to a whole new generation' - Tadhg Furlong's journey from New Ross to world's best tighthead prop

Furlong’s father had a big impact on his rise to the Irish team

Tadhg Furlong. Photo: Sportsfile
Tadhg Furlong. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Back in November, when World Rugby released the list of nominees for Player of the Year, Tadhg Furlong's omission raised eyebrows in plenty of quarters.

It was the 17th edition of the awards and the 17th consecutive year that a prop has never even been nominated for the prestigious award.

Tadhg in his Good Counsel uniform during his school days
Tadhg in his Good Counsel uniform during his school days

Throughout that time-frame, there have surely been few cases as strong as Furlong's to buck that trend but the unglamorous nature of playing as a tighthead prop is such that it is difficult to garner as much attention as, say, a mercurial out-half like Beauden Barrett, who picked up the gong for the second year running.

Furlong has never sought the limelight, however, even as far back as the early days when he first stepped foot onto a rugby pitch with New Ross RFC.

John Keenan's earliest memory of Furling is when he came across him at an U-8 blitz in Carlow, where Furlong politely asked if he could tie his bootlaces for him.

Even at that age, Keenan still believes that was the only thing he couldn't do on a rugby pitch.

A couple of years passed when Furlong told his coach that he would one day play for Ireland. Twelve years later, he fulfilled that promise when he made his debut against Wales, and in the process became New Ross' first senior international.

"I never had any doubts, Tadhg was just very special," Keenan recalls.

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"I knew of him because I played with his dad. I was an old-fashioned hooker, his dad was an old-fashioned tighthead prop, so Tadhg was getting good front-row coaching from a very early age.

"A lot of the credit for Tadhg's success would have to go to his dad (James) and mam (Margaret). They were always very supportive of him."

Furlong's rapid rise has come as no surprise to the people who watched him develop into, arguably, the best tighthead in world rugby. His outstanding performances on the Lions tour last summer cemented his reputation.

Attending Good Counsel College, a school that is more renowned for producing Wexford hurlers and footballers, as well as the likes of Aidan O'Brien (horse racing) and Kevin Doyle (soccer), Furlong was a mainstay in their GAA teams until rugby really took a hold at 15.

"We knew he was talented," deputy principal Aidan O'Brien maintains.

"I suppose the thing that always struck me was: here was a guy playing in the pack in rugby, who would have had a very high level of footballing skills to go with it.

"He had played full-back in the Wexford U-14 team that won the Forristal Cup. He was a very skilful player.

"He was a big lad, even at that age. He never ambled towards situations, he moved with some purpose to the ball, whenever it was coming in his direction.

"It was an intimidating experience for any small forwards that were in the vicinity! He was a no-nonsense defender. He was a big presence back there."

What sets Furlong apart from other tightheads in the world is his ability around the pitch. At 25, he is not just a ferocious scrummager but his skills as well as his defence is remarkable, especially for a 126kg prop.

While some of that has naturally come as a result of playing hurling and football, there are some things, you just can't teach kids, as Keenan explains: "Tadhg just stood out. He had skills that you don't associate with a prop forward. His ball-handling skills, his spatial awareness, his lightness on his feet, his ability to sidestep.

"Then we would apply his physical strength on top of all that. He was out on his own in the south-east at that stage.

"He was a human wrecking-ball from the age of six. But he was always a wrecking-ball with intelligence. I think his intelligence is what I would stress more than his physical strength.

"He just knew what was going to happen, he knew where to be, he knew where support was needed, he always knew where the opposition's weaknesses were and he could attack that. That's how he showed his leadership.

"Those indefinable skills, he was born with - he inherited them from his parents. His mother comes from good Bantry stock, tough people down on Whiddy Island, and his father is as tough as they come."

It has taken time for those skills to be nurtured on the world stage and Keenan has a theory as to why that is.

"My observation of him when he went into the Leinster set-up was that he was being groomed for greatness," he insists.

"When I saw his performances early on, I knew he could still do a lot more - in terms of his work in open play, in particular.

"I don't think the reins were ever taken off him until that game in Chicago last year. Whether he got an instruction then to go and show everyone what he can do, I don't know.

"But in that game, I saw the Tadhg that I had always seen as a kid, in terms of his performance outside of the scrum.

"He seems to be first receiver quite often nowadays and you see him giving those little inside passes to (Johnny) Sexton. That was always in him. I presume that the coaches were not allowing the full Tadhg to come through.

"They seemed to want him to progress on a gradual basis rather than throwing it all at him too early.

"My personal impression was that Tadhg was being coached to play within himself. I could see the gradual progression however. And I was all for that.

"I have seen too many players in other sports getting thrown into the deep end and there is too much expected of them. They end up being ruined by that."

Back in Good Counsel, O'Brien echoes those sentiments: "I remember him catching a ball single-handedly off a lineout against New Zealand in Chicago last year.

"It was a very obvious reminder that he was someone with very good footballing skills.

"I have no doubt that his exposure to Gaelic games from a young age, did him no harm at all when it comes to that side of his game."

Furlong has never forgotten his roots and his grounded approach comes from his upbringing in Campile. He is regularly seen helping out with the minis rugby on Saturday mornings in New Ross.

The number of kids playing rugby in the region continues to multiply, while Good Counsel won the McMullen Cup in Donnybrook back in March, when Furlong was in the stand supporting.

In 2016, on the Monday morning after Ireland's autumn series, Furlong unexpectedly arrived in the school with his jersey from the historic win over the All Blacks tucked under his arm.

After signing it, he handed it over to O'Brien and it now takes pride of place outside of his office.

"I had no idea he was calling in and he handed me his jersey from the game in Soldier Field," O'Brien recalls.

"That was a gesture of incredible generosity and, as I said, totally unexpected, totally unprovoked. It was something we hugely appreciated.

"In terms of the school rugby, it's probably no coincidence that last year we got a group of lads together who went and won the McMullen Cup.

"We have good numbers out training for rugby teams, both at junior and senior level.

"The rugby teams have definitely gained much greater traction and I have no doubt that Tadhg's prominence both nationally and international has plenty to do with that."

In New Ross, the ripple effect of Furlong's success is the same.

"Tadhg is an inspiration to a whole new generation of young rugby players," Keenan maintains.

"They can all see that it is possible to play for Ireland because of what Tadhg has achieved.

"You need guys like Tadhg and Seán O'Brien (Tullow) to spread the gospel of rugby in a province where GAA and soccer have a very strong foothold.

"Tadhg has always been an icon of the south-east. When Tadhg went out onto the field, you could see other teams' hearts sink because they knew exactly what he brought.

"Around New Ross RFC he is known as 'The Jukebox', because the hits keep coming and indeed the hits have kept coming since I first came into contact with him.

"I suppose the thing about Tadhg that always stood out to me was, you never had to teach him rugby.

"You might have teach him teamwork, discipline or fitness but when it came to rugby, he was just so naturally suited to the game.

"We never said, 'We're going to make a tighthead prop of Tadhg'. He just was one, and it was as simple as that.

"At U-14s, we had the team awards and I presented Tadhg with the player of the year award.

"I remember saying that he had carried the rest of the pack around the field in the south-east during that season.

"We had lost a couple of key players. One lad got a broken leg but really, Tadhg carried that team. He wasn't cocky though. He just went out and did his job and always did it well."

Now on an altogether bigger stage, Furlong continues to do his job better than most players in the same position.

The IRFU's eagerness to tie him to a national contract for the next three years illustrates his importance to Ireland going forward.

Furlong has come a long way since his underage days in Wexford, and you get the feeling that his story has quite a distance still to go.

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