Monday 12 November 2018

David Kelly: Furlong has come miles since his Twickenham terror

Tadhg Furlong is primed to make his mark against England. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Tadhg Furlong is primed to make his mark against England. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

The last - and only - time Tadhg Furlong was in Twickenham, you could say he didn't know his a**e from his elbow.

Or, if he did, to put it another way, he didn't know one elbow from the other; whatever way you looked at him - and it wasn't a pretty sight - he was ultimately left sitting on his behind.

At least the damage wasn't overly destructive.

Tomorrow, any sense of submission from the Campile colossus could prove fatal to Irish hopes. Then again, if this latest regressive week of faux outrage has taught humanity one lesson, it is the relevance of context. Furlong is a seasoned Lion now; in 2015, he was but a mere international cub.

Tomorrow is a Grand occasion; back then, England served as a mere warm-up to the World Cup, the only time international rugby truly does "friendly".

After just one cap for Ireland, Joe Schmidt had brought him to London not to lock down the scrum but to shore up the alarming lack of security on the other side, as Cian Healy's career, even to him, seemed to be approaching crisis point.

Tadhg Furlong training with Ireland scrum coach Greg Feek. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Tadhg Furlong training with Ireland scrum coach Greg Feek. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Just a year after jousting with Michael Bent to become Leinster's third-choice tighthead, now he was being asked to square a round peg. Easy to see how he had trouble fitting in.

"It was an interesting experience," is how Furlong describes his afternoon. "We'd Mike Ross at tight-head, me at loosehead and Nathan White (another tighthead) at six, packing down behind me. It was a bit of a weird one really."

For some fretful fans of a nervous disposition, it may have reawakened nightmares of 2012, when a similarly discommoded Irish scrum - on the other side, Tom Court pitching in bravely for a scratched Ross - had been pitilessly pummelled into the rain-drenched cabbage patch.

Furlong had been wary, too, even if not necessarily because of what he had seen happen before to others. Rather, because he had no idea what might occur next to him.

"Probably looking back, I don't think I was ever as nervous before a game of rugby as I was before that one," he reveals.

"It was only my second cap. I had learned loosehead in the space of a week. A crash course from Cian Healy. Pushing my hips into walls and stuff. Weird scrummaging drills.

"Also, when you're playing at tight-head most of the time then, you know your role and it doesn't change a massive amount around the pitch.

"But at loosehead, not only it is a different side of the scrum, you are in a different position in the lineout and then it is all about where you go for various phases of the game. It changes completely.

"I remember just racking my brain, looking at my notes, thinking over and over again trying to get it right."

He says it went well - "Solid scrum, played off the back of it, happy enough" - but, when pressed, folds under pressure as he recalls how he, erm, folded under pressure.

"There was one reset, it's actually a funny story.

"So I was scrummaging loosehead, and I actually bound over the tighthead instead. Usually the loosehead binds under and the tighthead binds over the loosehead's bind then.

"But I bound over the tighthead's bind. So he just walks up to me"

Kieran Brookes was the man in question, a one-time Irish under-age player before he switched sides (country, that is, not position).

"Mate, you know you're playing loosehead, yeah?'

"''Oh yeah!' So we reset that one and off we went again! Channel one ball in double-quick time, you guess. He is glad his career as a loosehead stopped there.

"It's mad to even think that players could cover both back then," he says, referring to those like Michael Bent and Court, players all too often pilloried by those ignorant of the front-row jungle. "The scrum is just so specialised now."

And now Furlong is arguably the world's most renowned specialist.

He may not play both sides of the scrum any more but this week he has still been keeping his eyes on them; both his direct opponent, Mako Vunipola, and Kyle Sinckler, a tighthead he admires.

"Sinc's a good scrummager," says Furlong.

"He's a very good ball carrier, he runs some very smart lines off nine, you'll see him coming out to in, hitting hard and getting over the gain line. He has a lot of energy and enthusiasm.

"Then there's Mako. I got on really well with him over on the Lions tour. He's pretty laid-back but when it comes to his rugby, he's professional and serious.

"He's a good scrummager too. He binds long, puts a lot of weight across the tighthead. Around the pitch, his play probably speaks for itself.

"He's a very good distributor of the ball, he carries it very well, his footwork at the line allows him to get soft shoulders.

"So he's one of their key men both from a ball-carrier point of view but also a link man between forwards and Owen Farrell out the back."

Furlong struggles to remember where he watched the 2009 Grand Slam but he may now be central to one that means so much to his country, were he to stop and think about it.

"Maybe if you won the game it would hit you. But there is still a game to play there.

" I think the group is under no illusion of what it means to the country, the team, our families and where we're from.

"But, at the end of the day, it's ifs, buts and maybes, all hypotheticals if we don't win the game of rugby."

Subscribe to The Left Wing, Independent.ie's Rugby podcast in association with Laya Healthcare, with Luke Fitzgerald and Will Slattery for the best discussion and analysis each week. From in depth interviews with some of Irish rugby's biggest stars to unmatched insights into the provinces and the national team, The Left Wing has all your rugby needs covered.

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