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Tadhg Furlong's farming strength has him in good Irish frontrow company

John Hayes and Mike Ross were as durable as tree trunks, and Furlong is showing same signs

Summertime, and the sporting seasons are overlapping. Being a proud Wexford man, Tadhg Furlong went along to Parnell Park with a few Leinster teammates last Sunday, and although his county were held to a draw by Dublin with the last puck of the game, he found it therapeutic.

“The start of the Championship; there was a good buzz around the place. The weather is starting to turn fine. It was a good day out to get your mind off rugby.

“Sometimes you have a tendency to lie around the house, feel a bit sore and stiff and sorry for yourself on Sunday. It was nice to get out and see a few of the lads, and go over to see the hurling.”

By and large, save for one of those teammates, he was allowed watch the game in peace.

“It was fine – a few funny comments here and there from the country crowd. It was good craic. Fards [Scott Fardy] was trying to decipher what was going on at half-time. I was answering questions for the full game. I didn’t actually get to watch it,” quips Furlong.

Last Saturday week took Furlong and Leinster to St James’ Park in Newcastle for the Champions Cup final against Saracens, and today’s Pro14 final against Glasgow will be at another famous football stadium with particular resonances for many Irish soccer supporters. Not that Furlong is a particularly fervent football fan.

"I was always stonewall-red useless at it as a young fella, so I never really picked up much on it. I think St James' Park, Celtic Park are iconic – not just in soccer circles but in the wider sporting arena. My uncle would have been a big Celtic fan when I was growing up. I have a cousin of similar age to me and literally Celtic wallpaper and Celtic everything."

That said, Furlong was at Old Trafford to see Celtic play Manchester United in Roy Keane's testimonial in May 2006, when he was 13 as part of a school tour with Good Counsel.

"All onto a bus and onto a ferry in Wexford! Not the most glamorous," recalls Furlong with a laugh. "I still have the scarf at home [from the testimonial] and I think we went to Alton Towers as well. We stayed one night and it was the biggest thing in the world."

Ambitious group

Of course, there is a serious side to Furlong as well, and the memory of that defeat to Saracens in St James’ Park will evidently be a significant spur for him and Leinster in Celtic Park.

“Look, we’re an ambitious group and obviously losing a European final is pretty devastating. If you think back to it, it’s still disappointing. It’s a chance to brighten up our holidays. And I suppose it’s not just for the group of players who are taking the pitch either, it’s the wider group and everybody who has contributed in the Guinness Pro14 this season.

“That means a lot to the squad, and the other side of that is the supporters. It genuinely has been amazing over the last few weeks. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a scene like before the Champions Cup final in Newcastle. That was incredibly special,” says Furlong, also citing “the money they’ve pulled out of their pockets to go and support us”.

“The players that are leaving as well, and it’s the final game of the season. I don’t think anyone wants to taste, or experience, such a dejected dressingroom again.”

Down to earth, unpretentious and a breath of fresh air, Furlong’s arrival on the scene couldn’t have been better timed either.

The Irish cupboard of props is relatively plentiful nowadays, but it wasn't always thus. Thankfully, back in the bare old days John Hayes and Mike Ross were as durable as tree trunks, and, touch wood, Furlong is showing signs of being the same.

Hayes held down the Irish number "3" jersey for 11 seasons, then Ross did so for six campaigns, and now Furlong has done so for the last three. Hence, since the Bull Hayes replaced Paul Wallace as one of five debutants in the transformative 44-22 win over Scotland at the old Lansdowne Road in February 2000, Ireland have played 99 games in the Six Nations, and between them Hayes, Ross and Furlong have started 96 of them at tighthead.

Seamless succession

It’s been a remarkable and virtually seamless succession between the three men, and Ross well remembers his first sighting of Furlong, then 19, at the 2012 World Under-20 Championships in South Africa when the latter was part of a team that has produced 11 full internationals.

"I remember watching him and thinking 'jeez, this fella looks pretty good.' He was up against Steven Kitshoff, who was playing Super Rugby [for the Stormers] at the time and he was more than holding his own against him."

Ross had returned to Leinster in 2009, and after that World Cup Furlong came into the province’s academy.

“He’s a country lad like myself,” says Ross, who began cutting his teeth with his home town team Fermoy RFC, while Furlong, who hails from Campile in Wexford, began playing with Good Counsel and New Ross RFC.

They had something of a mentor/protégé relationship.

“He used to ask me questions around the scrum. Tadhg was always looking for knowledge even at that stage. I’ve always thought it’s a team effort, and you need a full squad to get over the line, so it’s no good me keeping all the knowledge to myself.

“If I had to go off injured and Tadhg came on, and the scrum buckled and we lost the game as a result, no-one’s winning out of that.

“The frontrow would stay together sometimes and we’d go for coffee or burgers, or occasionally a pint,” says Ross, laughing. A favourite haunt was Thru the Green on the Dundrum Road, and cafes in Ranelagh.

Furlong is innately good-humoured and up for a laugh. “Except he does have a liking for Gucci socks, which is pretty disgraceful, and he gets a bit of slagging for it, but he wears it well,” reveals Ross.

“He always had it around the pitch,” adds Ross. “You could always tell he had special skills. He could do things that most tightheads couldn’t. It was his scrummaging that needed work, and he had a couple of rough days, but you can see how he’s travelling now that it’s certainly not an area of his game that you could point the finger at any more.”

Flying around the place

Ross also recalls watching a Leinster game away to Cardiff during the 2014 Six Nations on TV; Furlong’s second start for the province at the age of 21. “He was just everywhere, and I remember thinking ‘this fella is going to be good.’ He was flying around the place.”

Come the three-test tour to South Africa in 2016, Ross could see the younger man was ready to take over the tighthead reins.

Carefully managed by Joe Schmidt and Greg Feek, Furlong had spent the season in the Irish squad and after six caps off the bench, it was his full test debut in the second test in Johannesburg which convinced Ross that the younger man had already become a test match animal at 23.

“He gave the ‘Beast’ a very tough time,” says Ross of the Boks loosehead Tendai Mtawarira. “I always had nothing but trouble from that fella, and he [Furlong] handled him pretty well. He also made a block down and there were other nice bits and pieces.”

How did Ross take it?

“It’s a tough one to swallow, but at the same time I was 36 and you kind of accept it as the natural order of things. The fact that a guy of his quality is taking your place is a good reflection on you, that it took someone like that to do it.”

Ross played on for one more season with Leinster, but has watched Furlong’s continuing development since and remained in contact.

“He’s only 26, so there could be another 10 good years ahead of him. We probably have a lot better cover than we’ve ever had in that position. He can definitely get better. Props don’t start having fun until their 30s,” says Ross, chuckling. “There’s growing in him yet.”

Furlong also benefits from the Irish system. Last season he played 27 games, starting 24 of them, for a total of 1,540 minutes. Going into today’s final he has played 24 games, starting 21, for a total of 1,286 minutes, and says he feels fresh and fit.

“That’s one of the advantages of the Irish system,” says Ross. “They do look after you very well. You’re not rolled out week after week like you would be in France or England.”

Ross believes the description "world-class" fits Furlong. "I mean, who's better than him? If you're thinking of the top three, perhaps Owen Franks, [Rabah] Slimani on his day. Who else would you have in that category? There's not too many in his league."

Hayes, Ross, Furlong – not an unlikely tag team. And Ross detects one common theme. "A lot of the frontrow boys come out of farming backgrounds. John Hayes, myself, Tadhg and Rory Best.

“My father wouldn’t have been a big believer in a lot of machinery, so there was a lot of manual labour, especially if you’re working on a dairy farm. You’re constantly carrying buckets or tightening straw and other jobs of that nature.”

They remain in touch, and met up recently. Furlong will still seek the odd pointer in his game. “The fella has got his head fairly well screwed on though,” says Ross. “He’s doing all his planning for what his life is going to look like post-rugby, and making sure that every little thing that he can possibly do while he’s still playing rugby is looked after.”

When Furlong references the departing players, uppermost amongst them is assuredly another of farming stock, namely Seán O’Brien. Alas the Tullow Tank has played his last game for Leinster after a dozen years with the province, and for Furlong, as much as anybody, O’Brien was an important trail-blazer.

“It’s so much experience, isn’t it? Twelve years in Leinster now, and everything he’s contributed. On the pitch you’ve seen what he’s like, in the dressingroom, team meetings and leadership, I think you can’t look past on the impact Seánie has had on the growth of the game within Leinster.

“When I was playing underage, at 14s, 16s or whatever, he was playing with Leinster – and New Ross and Tullow would know each other quite well from being in the southeast. I’d be with my auld fella at games, and lads would always be saying: ‘How’s O’Brien getting on up at Leinster? Will he make it? Will he make it? Will he make it?’

“And by God, Seánie O’Brien made it, and the impact he had on fellas from around the southeast and regional rugby teams etc, has been massive.

“I think that as well as what he does on the pitch, and as well as what he does with the squad here, you can’t look past that either. And the way he carries himself. He is great craic, he is great for the group, great for the leadership, and what he was put out on the field was top notch.”

Bulk suppliers

The elite schools, particularly St Michael's of late, have been bulk suppliers in Leinster's system, but no less than Trevor Brennan and others, players such as O'Brien, are crucial to the province's reach beyond those traditional strongholds.

“Absolutely,” concurs Furlong. “You see lads coming through and I suppose to have that identity, with a fella you can relate to more than anything, is massively important. I saw Seánie coming through, with a similar background to me, so therefore you can relate to that straight away. I think that’s something in the game that is only going to grow.”

One hopes so. Of Leinster’s match-day 23 for the Champions Cup final, O’Brien and Furlong were the only two who came through the Leinster clubs/youths pathway. Hence, in that way also, another baton is now being passed on to Furlong.

He’ll carry it well.

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