Tadhg Furlong ready for ‘big boys’ rugby’ in opening Lions Test

Ireland prop hasn’t faced world champions Springboks since win in November 2017

Tadhg Furlong has been here before, the week of the first test in a British & Irish Lions series, pensively awaiting the selection and preparing to play against the reigning world champions, and he distils it neatly.

“It’s big boys’ rugby, isn’t it, on a big stage?” said the 119kg prop.

“You can feel it around the place, it has a lot of importance on it - rugby players in general rise to these occasions, with that internal want to do well.”

With the Test selection likely to be revealed to the players in the next day or two, Furlong detected a change in mood around the squad on Monday.

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“Everyone’s a little bit on edge. We’re into the nitty-gritty of the tour now and it means a lot to people so everyone is just waiting to see how it pans out if you are in or out.”

Despite being an ever-present in the Test series four years ago, he feels no less sure of his place in the team for the opener on Saturday in Cape Town (kick-off 5pm Irish time).

It's still remarkable to think when Furlong, then 24, was brought on the 2017 tour he'd only started nine Tests and the first of them was exactly a year before the Lions series against the All Blacks when pitched into the second of Ireland's three-match series in Johannesburg.

While he is constantly striving to add strings to his bow, Furlong looks back five years and admits: “At that point, you are probably a deer in the headlights a small bit in terms of Test rugby and what it meant. I was probably fairly green.

“And from a personal point of view as well, what was I? Was I 23 or 24, around that? Look, I obviously matured a lot as a person since then. I like to think I have developed a good bit since then.”

Since that 2016 tour, Furlong has only faced them once, in that 38-3 win in November 2017 at the Aviva Stadium.

He was opposed by Tendai Mtawarira both times, and although The Beast has since retired after his scrummaging was the bedrock of their World Cup final victory, his replacement that night, Steven Kitshoff, is likely to be opposing Furlong this Saturday.

Their other front row starters in that World Cup final, hooker Bongi Mbonambi and tighthead Frans Malherbe, are slight concerns, although they still have Malcolm Marx and Vincent Koch in their stocks as well.

“It’s so ingrained in their DNA, that scrum dominance, the maul dominance. It’s a huge challenge for whatever forward pack and whatever subs are selected,” admitted Furlong.

“You’re coming up against a passionate crew who take pride in their work and art at scrum time. Yes, we’ve not been playing the Springboks, we’ve been playing the provincial teams or the franchises, but they still take massive pride in their scrum and they’re big men.”

Away from the pitch, Furlong confirmed that, unsurprisingly, Conor Murray hasn't been in the least upset about returning the tour captaincy back to Alun Wyn Jones.

“He is very laid back off the pitch, almost horizontal, so it’s water off a duck’s back for him. He was delighted that Limerick won the Munster Hurling Championship again. He was on cloud nine there.”

Teammates have also revealed that Furlong has done some DJing in the team hotel, but Furlong maintains: “Ah, it’s over-egged, to be honest with you really. The long and short of it is, they brought a lot of stuff over for us, just to keep us entertained obviously with the hotel and stuff like that.

“So, Tom Curry found decks and decided he wanted to be a DJ. I was like ‘Look, let’s have a go.’ A bit of craic, trying to learn a new skill.

“It went terribly. And then we found out Josh Navidi, or Navici as we are calling him, actually does a bit of DJing in clubs, so we tried to learn a little bit off him.

“We have done a coffee morning, heavily helped by Navici and that’s about it. We are terrible. I wouldn’t be trying to sell any tickets for a night any time soon.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times