For players and coaches who have young families, being in lockdown has its pluses. And likewise for those from a farming background. Not a bad time at all.
Rory Best has just followed John Hayes into retirement, and Seán O'Brien has moved on to London Irish, leaving Tadhg Furlong on his own among the Leinster squad in that he is now back on the family farm in Campile in Wexford.
“I’m happy out,” admits Furlong. “You’ve freedom, that’s what you have. You can go out around the fields. We’ve an old farmhouse and I’d say we moved out of there when I was three or four. It kind of went into ruin, so I decided ‘sure look, what else am I at?’ So me and the oul’ fella are just cleaning it out, and we might make something of it. But sure if we don’t, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
“We’re ripping out the galvanised roof. It’s been good fun. It’s a long time since I got to spend this much time at home.”
Not since his Leaving Cert in fact, all of 10 summers ago, when he joined the Leinster sub-academy. Now he’s back in Campile, or what he calls “the centre of the universe”, halfway between New Ross and Hook Lighthouse, and six minutes from Duncannon beach. He’s as close to Waterford city as he is to Wexford or, as he quips to put it in context: “It’s about 45 minutes to the cinema!”
Furlong maintains the family’s dairy farm, of about 50 or 60 acres, is small. “The most cows we ever milked was 30, which by today’s standards would be tiny. It wouldn’t even register.”
His father, James, also had a slaughter house and his own butchers shop before working for other butchers.
“He has sciatica nerve issues in his back so we’ve scaled down. We went from dairy to a suckler herd, and now we just buy in a few young calves every year. He loves feeding the calves himself. He’ll sit down then, smoke a fag and look at his calves, and he’s happy.”
Spending six weeks on the farm has not only afforded Furlong time with his Dad, Mum Margaret (who was a principal at Ballycullane National School) and older brother Eoin, who is now working on the county council from home.
A decade living in Dublin makes Furlong appreciate life back home.
“Life can be a lot simpler down here. There’s no panic or rush. It’s lovely to be home.”
Furlong also has his bulldog, Reggie, with him.
“I always thought Reggie was a nice name for a bulldog, so if I buy a second one I’ll call him Ronald, after the Kray brothers, Reggie and Ron.”
Adding to the sense of it being a haven in the sunny south east, Wexford is the county which is statistically least affected by the coronavirus. One of Furlong’s good friends from home is a vet who tells him that as soon as he gets out of his car on a farm, someone will greet him with a hand sanitiser.
“Everyone is very, very conscientious of it here, and I don’t think it has spread as much here.”
As the Keelings imbroglio highlighted, the fruit and veg picking season is nearing, and while Wexford is more famed for its strawberries and potatoes, Furlong picked broccoli for three summers.
He recounts being hunched behind a tractor for eight hours every day in detail. “The stench from the field! Then you come home and smell of broccoli. Honestly, I didn’t eat broccoli for about 10 years. I couldn’t. It’d turn you.”
As well as re-acquainting himself with farm work and gutting the old farmhouse, like all his team-mates, Furlong also has his daily training.
“I made a bit of a home gym. We cleaned out the old milking parlour one day and we made up a squat rack out of wood, just a few old planks we had lying around. So I can train away and run away, and you can keep on top of your rehab bits, and apart from that just fill in the day by mucking around the place.”
This allows him to achieve that balance between staying fit and taking a break, in this curious place players find themselves in. “That limbo between off-season and pre-season,” as Furlong puts it.
“There’s a very fine line between staying fit and being mentally sharp, but then also giving yourself that mental break from rugby that you need coming from a busy season to what could be a season and a half compressed into one season.”
It’s an odd one all right, an extended holiday, without actual holidays, while keeping fit without being in full pre-season.
Puzzlingly too, relatively few farmers have played professional rugby in Ireland, even though they certainly have the hardiness and strength for the sport. As well as Furlong, the Bests, Hayes, John Ryan (all frontrowers) and O'Brien, Furlong adds that Will Addison's father is an organic farmer.
Furlong believes there’s plenty more farmers and youths players generally out there, once they are eventually given access to coaches, gyms and facilities that are the norm for many schools players.
“When you’re thrown in with schools lads, you realise how hard you have to work for everything, where you’ve come from and how much it means to your family and the people around you. The hunger that is fostered in Youths rugby is massive and as soon as they get that contact time in sub-academies and full academies, they develop at such a rate. It’s great to see when it happens.”
Speaking on Face Time, Furlong’s sitting room (looking out onto sundrenched rural views to the front of the house) has plenty of reminders of his early ventures into Gaelic games and rugby.
“This is a clock which we won for winning the Under-14 All-Ireland with Wexford,” he says, lifting the said item, which was for hurling. “My club, Horeswood, would be a stronger football club but I was always better at hurling. You didn’t have to be fast for hurling!”
On the mantelpiece, alongside a medal, ‘Horeswood Handball Division 2 champion’ which he won for “a novices under-14 handball event”, there’s Furlong’s medal for ‘Under-14 player of the year’ with New Ross RFC.
“Like, what is that doing on the mantelpiece? My father obviously values it a lot. Either that, or it doesn’t collect as much dust as the rest of the stuff.”
His father also played prop for New Ross, as well as coaching mini-rugby and underage teams, and Furlong – who simply recalls going everywhere with his Dad in his early years – reckons he was four when first thrown in with the under-8s.
He cites a few key stepping stones thereafter, such as the Leinster South-East trials which led to the Irish Youths (Under-18 team). That brought him to the attention of both the Munster and Leinster academies. "Gerry Murphy pulled me aside and gave me guidance and reassurance that I was good enough to push on. He influenced my decision to come to Dublin.
“You have to remember New Ross is two hours from Limerick, two hours from Cork and two hours from Dublin. People from here scatter into the wind. All my close friends went to UL, so that was a big moment.”
Furlong also recalls how a raft of injuries led to him being called into the 2011 Six Nations Under-20 squad "out of the blue" when in his first year with the Leinster sub-academy (2010-11) at the age of 18.
"Mike Ruddock took a chance on me and next thing I knew he took me to the [Under-20] World Cup. That was a big, big moment and along the way Colin McEntee and Richie Murphy had been closely liaising with the Youths system, and they were very good for me as well."
However, after the 2011 Junior World Cup, Furlong required a shoulder operation which sidelined him for 26 weeks. He then ripped off a bicep tendon, played the 2012 Junior World Cup in South Africa, before rupturing a kidney playing for Clontarf on St Patrick's Day weekend in 2013, sidelining him for another 25 weeks.
On returning from that setback, Furlong needed an appendix operation. “I remember trying to scrummage after it and I nearly passed out because my abdominal muscles were so weak.”
Matt O’Connor gave him his senior debut in November 2013 and having been fifth choice at Leinster, retirements and injuries combined to open the door into the 2015 Irish World Cup squad after just one season as a pro at the age of 22.
“By God, was I raw? I was so raw. I’d played very little professional rugby.”
But Joe Schmidt’s investment paid off, with Furlong playing a starring role in a catalogue of achievements with Leinster, Ireland and the Lions in 2017 and 2018.
“It just flowed, and even when you look back now you don’t know where the time is after going. It just goes so quick.”
The good times came to a halt, culminating in a 2019 World Cup which Furlong describes as gut-wrenching.
"It's very hard to put your finger on where it went wrong. We were just off in a small few areas. The more you think about it, the more you wind yourself up about it, because no one knows. No one has the magic solution. And you just have to wear it and get on with it. It's disappointing for the players and the coaching staff. We said goodbye to Joe Schmidt, to Greg Feek, to Mervyn Murphy, to Enda [McNulty]. It was a bleak time but what can you do? You go back to Leinster and you drive on."
This lockdown came at a time when Leinster were unbeaten and well placed in both competitions, while after beating Scotland and Wales, Ireland came unstuck in Twickenham. “We killed ourselves and England capitalised in the pressure they applied and where they played the game, and they were very good.”
“Going into that France week, the lads were absolutely bubbling. It was one of those weeks when you could feel something was brewing. Would it have happened or not, who knows? But it certainly felt that way.”
If it comes to pass that the season is abandoned, then Furlong reasons: “It would be disappointing but then there’s obviously more important things in the world. You just roll with the punches, make the best of whatever situation you’re in and use your time as best you can.”
And unlike others who are nearer the end of their careers, whenever rugby returns, at 27 Furlong has plenty left to achieve and should have time on his side.
“I’d always be a believer that the individual leads to the collective, and you have to look after your own bits. We’re led very, very well in Leinster and Ireland with the coaching staff and the captain there, but it’s up to you, isn’t it? The team isn’t going to carry you.
“It’s up to you to keep trying to get better and not let complacency kick in. I suppose the day that happens is the day you’re in trouble really.”