The shape of things to come: Tadhg Furlong made for prop
Wexford may have put a hurl in his hand but nature made him a tighthead
Graduating from the academy: Furlong proved his mettle in the 2012 World Cup in South Africa where he played in all 10 games. Photograph: Billy Stickland / Inpho
Such is the nature of things that, as a prop and particularly as a tighthead, Tadhg Furlong has had to bide his time compared to Irish under-20 backline contemporaries like Kieran Marmion, JJ Hanrahan, Stuart Olding, Luke Marshall, Andrew Conway and Craig Gilroy who have been quicker to progress through the pro ranks. Furlong’s talent is every bit as prodigious, and although some curious injuries or setbacks along the way have further delayed his progress, at 21 he is finally stepping into the pro game.
He’s always been an imposing figure but, having served his four-year apprenticeship in the Leinster academy, Furlong is beginning his first season with the big boys. Appearing as a 53rd minute replacement last week in Glasgow, and liable to play a similar role today, this season already feels different from last, when he made his first seven appearances for the province as a final year academy product.
The 21-year-old says he has never had a better pre-season, and at 1.85m (6ft 1in) and 119kg (18st 10lbs), has never felt stronger or fitter. “I’ve grown a lot as a player and a person in pre-season. You fit in more with the senior squad. You’re on the same schedule as them; you’re in the gym with them and you get to know the lads better. You have a lot more confidence when you go out to train. You can talk up or whatever.”
Scrummaging is his forte but as Declan O’Brien, the regional development officer who first brought Furlong into the southeast region and then the full Leinster Youths’ set-up, quickly detected, Furlong also has very good feet for such a big lad.
That Marty Moore last season emerged as backup to the current Irish tighthead, Mike Ross, for both Leinster and Ireland, presents difficulties as well as opportunities. An example can be seen in last week’s positive contribution by Furlong to Leinster’s rally against Glasgow in the final quarter. “You keep building. I know I’ve two Irish internationals ahead of me, so any chance I have, I have to take it.”
In all of this then, there is more pressure on Furlong to begin delivering on his talent and the investment in him. “Yeah, I’m out in the big, bad world now. A lot more is expected of you as well. You’re not under the academy banner and you’re not seen as a young fella any more. But that’s part and parcel of it, isn’t it?”
He comes from Wexford farming stock, his dad having “about 30 cows sitting on 50-60 acres”. Furlong maintains that his innate strength and size comes more from his genes than labouring on the farm. His father James played as a prop with New Ross RFC, while Furlong’s mum, Margaret, is a principal at Ballycullane National School.
Given that Furlong went to Good Counsel in New Ross, inevitably he played Gaelic football and hurling there until he was about 16 and also at Horsewood GAA club. Hurling was a bigger rival to rugby than Gaelic football – he was part of his county’s under-14 Tony Forristal Cup winning side.
“You probably didn’t have to have the raw pace or body shape to get around the place. My old fella used to always say ‘sure Tadhg, if he’s no legs, he can’t run away from you. That’s what a hurl is for’,” he says, smiling broadly, before describing hurling as an unbelievable sport, citing last Sunday’s epic All-Ireland final draw.
Nonetheless, rugby was always part of his upbringing too. “My father used to go into the mart on a Saturday or a Sunday, and he played in New Ross for years and coached at mini-level and a few age-grade teams. He had all his buddies there and he used to throw me in with the under-eights. I used to tag along with him to his training sessions too.”
Good-naturedly, Furlong readily admits: “My body shape probably lends more to rugby than it does to hurling. That’s just the fact of the matter.” In any event, after call-ups to the Leinster Youths’ set-up, he threw in his hat with rugby.
Through Leinster and Irish Youths, Furlong was called into the Leinster sub-academy in the 2010-11 season. “I don’t have a big training age in terms of gym and properly training like the schools’ lads,” he admits, “so I probably lagged behind a lot of the lads in terms of skills.”
“It’s not the most travelled route, I get called ‘Strawberry’ and a ‘Turnip Muncher’ and ‘Spud’, and everything under the sun by the lads,” he says laughing. “Look, it’s where I’m from and I’m very proud of where I come from.”
If he felt a tad intimidated by his new surroundings, within a year he had played in the 2011 IRB Junior (under-20s) World Championships in Italy. “Going into my first year in the academy, after that I thought, hold on, let’s give this a shot. That was a huge learning experience for me.”
Along with the 2012 tournament in South Africa, he played all 10 World Cup games, starting nine of them. The way he anchored the Irish scrum in the win over hosts, and eventual winners, South Africa in the 2012 tournament, and backed that up in the play-off wins over England and France to help earn a landmark fifth-place finish, marked Furlong out for the troublesome tighthead position.
Joining Clontarf on leaving school and signing up for the sub-academy at the age of 17 was also a significant move in his development. “They’re a proper club, like New Ross, and there’s a real sense of community about them. Playing in the AIL was a huge part of my development and is vital for any academy player, but perhaps especially a prop. I remember one day playing against Marcus Horan, and surviving that gave me more confidence.”
However, after playing a dozen or so Divison 1A games his 2012-13 season was ended prematurely by a lascerated kidney, sustained away to UL Bohemians.
“Freakish stuff. It was March 16th, 2013, and I took a flat ball off 10 and Seán Henry, the Connacht hooker, tackled me from side-on. I just didn’t see him coming. He absolutely cut me. I had this horrible feeling down low in my back and when I went to the toilet I pissed blood.
“We rang the club doctor and he said ‘get him back immediately’ but all the Clontarf cars had left and I had to spend two-and-a-half hours on the team bus in agony. I didn’t come back until well into pre-season the next season, and then my appendix went, which put me back another few months.”
Yet the high hopes for Furlong have remained undimmed, with Joe Schmidt freely and publicly admitting he is on the Irish management’s radar already. An eminently pleasant lad – the kind who fits the description as sound as a pound – he still has a real edge to him on the pitch, and is clearly ambitious.
Furlong freely admits as much: “Every young player in a provincial set-up is ambitious, and we all want to play for Ireland. I know myself I’ve a lot of work and development to do, and I’m happy enough to do it, and learn off the lads who are ahead of me. Training with Leinster I’m scrummaging against two very good international looseheads [Cian Healy and Jack McGrath], and if you don’t learn there you’ll be going backwards at a rate of knots.”
More than decent in the loose, it won’t matter a damn if he doesn’t scrummage strongly, and the technical aspects of the scrum generally change every week, with today’s opponents, the Scarlets, more inclined to scrummage heavily through their loosehead.
Hence, it can be a hard school. “If you take a bit of a beating in the scrum, you take it on the chin and learn from it . . . Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I don’t think tightheads are either.”