Tadhg Furlong and company calm before the storm
Focused prop preparing to lock horns with his fellow Lions Sinckler and Vunipola
Tadhg Furlong relaxing at the Irish team’s headquarters at Carton House in Co Kildare yesterday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Watching Ireland players drape themselves over several chaise longue as they await their cue to become temporary ringmasters in the media circus, it’s difficult to reconcile that they are a couple of days out from a Grand Slam game against England at Twickenham. They exude a serenity in contrast to the maelstrom around them.
They’re not oblivious to what’s at stake on Saturday in south west London but refuse to be lured outside the bubble in which they exist during match weeks. Tadhg Furlong offers an insight into the collective mindset.
“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, hypothetical if we don’t win the game of rugby. I know this sounds incredibly boring but you just need to go through the same process you do for every other game.
“You do nothing different, your build-up is the same, the way you prep, [the way] the week is structured, there is nothing out of the ordinary, there is nothing different, there is a game at the end with a lot of on the line.
“If you think about it in the grand scheme of things, we are Six Nations champions. There is nothing to lose in that respect. But that doesn’t mean you go out and play your game different. You look at what’s stood well for us over the last four games; trying to be consistent, holding onto the ball, putting the opposition under pressure and being clinical in what we do. That part doesn’t change at all.”
Furlong’s only ever been to Twickenham once before, a 2015 World Cup warm-up match against England that provided a surreal rugby moment and a memory at which he chuckles. Winning just his second cap, he came on at with 10 minutes remaining to replace the injured Simon Zebo.
It had been a rough day for Ireland in that respect. Furlong played in the unfamiliar position of loosehead prop, Nathan White, another prop was at flanker, and Chris Henry, a flanker, filled the void left by Zebo on the wing.
He takes up the story.
“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. Usually the loosehead binds under and the tighthead binds over the loosehead’s bind. But I bound over the tighthead’s bind and he said ‘mate, you know you’re playing loosehead, yeah?’
“I just said ‘Oh yeah’, so we reset that one and went again.”
His opponent was Kieran Brookes, a former Ireland underage international who switched to the country of his birth, England, as a 19-year-old.
Amongst the seven changes made by England coach Eddie Jones is the decision to start Kyle Sinckler at tighthead prop instead of Dan Cole. All three struck up a friendship, along with English loosehead Mako Vunipola during the Lions tour to New Zealand last summer.
Camaraderie will be suspended for 80 minutes but it doesn’t compromise the respect that the Leinster prop possesses for his erstwhile team-mates.
“Sinc [Sinckler) is a good scrummager, a very good ball carrier and 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. Mako [Vunipola], 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, 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, 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 admits that despite the prize that beckons on Saturday the players have found enjoyment in one another and that they don’t “walk around like zombies”.
“When we’re on we’re on, when we’re off, we’re off. Even in team meetings, there will be a few bits to lighten up the mood. When you’re around a pack of lads, there is no extra incentive needed to lighten the load or have the craic.”
The premise of their four victories in the tournament to date is based on a simple principle.
“We have a way that we play and I think everyone buys into it. The standards we set, you’re not going to get onto the teamsheet if you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do. I think the senior player group really drive that within the squad.”
The aim is to ensure that it’ll be no different when Saturday comes.