Liam Toland: Tadhg Furlong miles ahead of the competition
Leinster frontrower showed the ambition Ireland need if they are to dominate
Tadhg Furlong and Seán O’Brien kept Ireland on the front foot against Wasps in the Champions Cup quarter-final. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
So Munster’s tighthead prop John Ryan was man of the match in Thomond Park. That the other number three jersey on Saturday was filled by Toulouse “heavyweight” Census Johnston is instructive. And although Joey Carbery’s sublime performance for Leinster in the Aviva netted him man of the match, it was another tighthead that stole the show for me.
Tadhg Furlong was once again immense in tackling the Wasps manqué. Yes, I was deeply disappointed in Wasps. I had hoped to witness four playmakers in full flow if for no other reason but to sit back and enjoy Kurtley Beale, Elliot Daly, Jimmy Gopperth and Danny Cipriani. Beale was certainly worth the entry fee and it was great to see Gopperth back in Dublin, but the other two? Add to them James Haskell, Nathan Hughes and, most worryingly, their captain Joe Launchbury who were all under par. I simply don’t get Haskell.
Wasps came to Dublin with England’s defeat in their core. For some reason they elected to switch from their natural game into an extremely conservative orientated approach. They consistently hit the front of the lineout, partly to avoid Devin Toner but mostly to play safe. Their counter attack was lacklustre with Beale’s natural flair being abandoned by team-mates. Daly did nothing and Haskell stormed around doing less.
In the meantime Furlong was adding value wherever he went. Every dirty ball was pounced upon with the ambition to shift it immediately into space and a potential attack. His peripheral vision is as good as any back.
I actually laughed out load on occasions where he was so intent on adding value that he’d contort his body in an effort to ship the ball on – as he did in finding Richardt Strauss who bounced it on to his absent winger with the ball landing in touch. I wondered, as I watched strategies unfold, how freer the Leinster players appeared. Why was Furlong so keen to mimic Carbery? Because he can but also because there’s clearly a value associated with his actions.
Seán O’Brien was also employed in the way we’ve hoped all season. Get him onto the second or third pass: that bit further out which creates questions for the defence. Even top quality defensive backs will need support to stop a flat-out O’Brien.
Peripheral vision is an oft ignored skill but when defences spot O’Brien further out they are transfixed in his headlights. They simply can’t afford to second guess him. They need to get their body position and foot plant perfect, all in time for the collision. So, the fact he’d carried several times before Carbery hit Isa Nacewa for the first try was crucial to the Wasps defenders having to bite for a moment on O’Brien.
Had O’Brien not carried in midfield earlier they would have spotted him alright, but may have not prioritised his decoy run which created the opportunity for Nacewa. Muscle has a memory and defenders’ peripheral vision spot strange things, like O’Brien running hard at them.
Clearly the different levels (international and European) afford different strategies but getting O’Brien into different channels – especially off the two pronged attack of Johnny Sexton and Carbery – opens so much opportunity.
In his biggest outing of his career Jack Conan at number eight was phenomenal. His style of ball carrying, although much more direct than Jamie Heaslip, has the added value of his predatory, peripheral vision – he cranes his neck as he pumps his legs to spot a trail runner to hit. Clearly this is something he mimics in countless hours of training as his team-mates were immediately tuned to this skill and maximised every break he made.
As I watched both games ebb and flow in Dublin and Limerick, one point came thundering into my view. Factoring in the Irish tour to South Africa, the historic autumn series and the Six Nations table into last weekend’s European clashes I’m convinced that a) if you are reasonably talented, listen to your coaches and work extremely hard you will experience elite success – you will win trophies – and b) if you follow the previous point you will also play for Ireland.
Stockpile of backrows
Over the Autumn series 37 players made the pitch in four games. Five of them were opensides; Jordi Murphy, Josh van der Flier, O’Brien, Jack O’Donoghue and Dan Leavy. This was unheard of a few short years ago and with a stockpile of backrows queuing up more will get across the international line. So by listening and working hard opportunities will definitely arise and in an environment where winning trophies will happily collide. Not so in France.
It was a wonderful weekend of rugby where I was especially pleased that two Irish tightheads dominated in the dark arts and had the subtlety and football skills of a three quarter. Yes, Carbery was sublime but if we are to really tackle New Zealand et al we need all our front five players to display the ambition the aforementioned tightheads displayed around the ball.
Peripheral vision is an area well worth exploring in both attack and defence. What you see provides a decision and an opportunity to create that gets players like Carbery motoring out wide, eyes rotating rugby if you will.
PS: As you read this I’m sitting in a 60 seater bus packed with the Old Crescent Under 17s heading to the Portugal Rugby Youth Festival 2017 weekend in Lisbon. Wish us luck, sure what could possibly go wrong!