Sport Leinster Rugby

Sunday 25 August 2019

Lion kings Vunipola and Furlong put friendship to one side again

Tadhg Furlong. Photo: Sportsfile
Tadhg Furlong. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Across the St James' Park pitch tomorrow there will be Lions battles going on.

If a Test team was being picked this summer, it would be dominated by players from Leinster and Saracens who also enjoyed the highest representation when Warren Gatland's side secured an unlikely draw in New Zealand two years ago.

Much of the focus will centre on Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell, the talismanic out-halves who are so good the tourists were compelled to play them together when rescuing the series against New Zealand.

Seán O'Brien will have a big say on matters, Liam Williams could cause major damage against James Lowe, who played against the tourists for the Chiefs and the Maori in 2017, while Jamie George's supply out of touch to Maro Itoje and George Kruis will be a factor.

However, the tight five may yet have the biggest say and the compelling figures of Mako Vunipola and Tadhg Furlong could have the biggest influence of all.

We have long moved past the idea of props just being set-piece specialists and no two players epitomise the modern era more than the Lions' starting front-rowers from 2017.

Furlong was one of the break-out stars of that tour, while Vunipola's physical contribution and ball-handling was exceptional.

Off the pitch, they worked closely on scrum strategy and spent time together during the quieter moments, while on it they worked with and against each other in live scrummaging sessions.

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Last season, Furlong had the upper hand when their paths crossed but the England star won man of the match when Eddie Jones's men ransacked Dublin in February.

Whoever gets on top tomorrow will have a big say in the destination of the title.

"He has obviously proved to be one of the best in the world, if not the best," the England loosehead said ahead of locking horns with Ireland's tighthead on Saturday.

"Again, that is why you play the game, you want to test yourself against the best.

"It is a great opportunity this weekend and hopefully we can try and nullify some of his impact, but you can only do so much. I am looking forward to a great match-up.

Surprised

"He surprised me in the way he was such a big guy and his set-piece stuff was solid, but around the park I couldn't believe how hard he worked.

"In my eyes, when I thought: 'I think I am all right at this'. Then you see that and you are like: 'Oh, no I am not'.

"So it kind of gives you a bit of motivation to push yourself and that is what you get with good players.

"That is one thing I take from those tours and being around those great players - you are always going to learn, it is just whether you want to.

"He has obviously got all the skills and sometimes you forget he is a prop forward. But I think he never takes away from his bread and butter, which is his set-piece. Then everything else is a bonus.

"He is very reliable as a player, and when he does come and train he always gives 100pc. That is the sign of a great player in my eyes.

"Probably where we were closer, was off the field. He is a top bloke and he's very easy to get along with.

"Front-rowers tend to always migrate to each other anyway. So we spent a lot of time together. He is very easy to get along with, very relaxed and a funny guy as well."

Although Furlong's memories of touring with Vunipola are tainted by the fact the England international snored his head off when they roomed together, he reflects on their time together with fondness.

However, he believes the game has moved on since they were part of the same pack that took on the All Blacks.

"Going against him in the scrum, the game has changed so much in terms of scrummaging within the last two years," he said.

"What we were talking about on the Lions tour, in terms of what we wanted to achieve in the scrum and the way we went about it, is maybe not the case anymore.

"Mako is world-class in what he does. He has had a few injury problems this year but he has come back and looked really fresh.

"His ability to attack the gain-line, his ability to bring others into the game, his footwork, late at the line.

"You look at the scrum, they put Munster under pressure a fair few times. Knowing the Munster lads well, knowing how hard it is to do that to them - the way they nullified Munster's threats in some respects and the way they were able to hold on to the ball, build pressure and score points was a quality performance."

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