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Ireland have two superb tightheads. Should Porter switch back to loosehead?

The Wexford man has made two encouraging sub appearances but Porter has been in excellent form.

Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Porter give Ireland two strong tighthead options.
Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Porter give Ireland two strong tighthead options.

ONE OF THE big positives for Ireland over the past fortnight has been the return of Tadhg Furlong, with the Wexford man getting through 54 minutes in two replacement appearances and suggesting that there are plenty more hits to come from ‘The Jukebox’.

The Leinster tighthead spent 11 months on the sidelines with calf and back issues and came into this championship having played just 40 minutes for his province, but he has looked sharp in his two outings.

Eager to make up for lost time, 28-year-old Furlong has had 11 carries in the last two games, with the effort below showing the kind of power and aggression he can bring.

TF

Furlong is mobile and fit, meaning he can deliver a high volume of heavy-duty carries in tight channels like above. He also possesses good footwork and a strong fend.

One of his main points of difference is his ability to pass and there have been four reminders of that in recent weeks too, including the effort below.

Furlong

Furlong is good at staying ‘square’ upfield before passing, meaning he is a carrying threat to France lock Bernard le Roux in this instance, as indicated in red below.

F

Furlong also briefly eyeballs the next French defender, Anthony Jelonch [as indicated in white above], as his initial body shape suggests he could tip the short pass on to Tadhg Beirne.

Furlong then rotates to release the ball out the back to Garry Ringrose, allowing Ireland to target space on the right edge. 

In the example below, Furlong does opt for the tip-on pass to Dave Kilcoyne and then works hard to stay on his feet, push beyond the Welsh defender, and win the race to the breakdown.

Tip

Once he has arrived at the breakdown, Furlong shows his experience to accentuate Wales prop Rhodri Jones’ poor finishing position after the tackle on Kilcoyne, with Furlong getting his left leg over Jones to help pin him in position and earn Ireland a penalty. 

Pin

Furlong’s mobility, power, and technical quality in the tackle mean he is generally a very strong defender and he has made seven tackles in this championship so far.

Below, we see Furlong’s energy off the defensive line and he then targets the ball in a double tackle with Iain Henderson.

D

Concerned about the choke tackle, Wales back row Josh Navidi attempts to offload the ball and Furlong readjusts his left arm to help force it loose for an Ireland turnover.

Furlong has missed one tackle and won’t have enjoyed being fended explosively by Antoine Dupont in that instance, although the France scrum-half possesses freakish power in close quarters.

The Wexford man is also very fast for a tighthead, as evidenced by him nearly preventing Wales wing Louis Rees-Zammit from scoring in the right corner.

Furlong is not renowned as a jackal turnover threat at the breakdown but it has been interesting to see him seemingly focus on this side of his game more in recent weeks – perhaps a response to tighthead rival Andrew Porter’s outstanding skills in this area.

Jackal

Above, Furlong competes after Ireland chase a box kick, coming close to a steal and drawing three Welsh players in to clear him away.

“Gotta be lifting, not just putting your hand on it [the ball],” referee Wayne Barnes tells Furlong after he appeals for a penalty.

But, as we see below, Furlong has another sniff just over 30 seconds later and helps Ireland to win the penalty. 

Matador

Barnes pings Wales for going off their feet here as they look to prevent Furlong from getting his hands on the ball. 

Of course, set-piece work is as important as anything else for a tighthead prop and Furlong can be pleased with his efforts in that department. 

His lift at the front of CJ Stander helped the number eight to steal a lineout against Wales, while Furlong is generally regarded as an excellent lifter. 

At scrum time, he has looked solid in his eight involvements so far in this championship.

The scrum has been a bright point for Ireland over the last two games, with scrum coach John Fogarty surely pleased with the strong platform it is providing for Ireland’s attack, as well as the good discipline of his forwards, with no penalties conceded.

Ireland have won one penalty, with starting tighthead Porter getting the better of France’s Cyril Baille.

CB

Referee Luke Pearce penalises Baille for his elbow hitting the ground first in a very satisfying moment for the Irish pack.

25-year-old Porter has been excellent at scrum time in Ireland’s two games, hinting at being more destructive, while he has also contributed to the improved lineout and maul effort under new forwards coach Paul O’Connell. 

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Porter has benefited hugely from Furlong’s long-term injury and has started all of Ireland’s last eight games under Farrell, looking more comfortable with each appearance. His good form has continued in recent weeks.

Porter is explosive and mobile around the pitch, with the carry below showing his footwork and awareness too.

AP

Porter could have been caught behind the gainline here but a sharp right-footed step takes him inside the Welsh linespeed before he straightens and powers forward to win the gainline when that initially looked unlikely.

Two phases later, Porter is back on his feet and shows his ever-improving handling skills to release a link pass out the back to Hugo Keenan, allowing Ireland to threaten on the left edge.

AP Pass

Porter has been working hard on this aspect of his game – keen to match what Furlong brings here – and it’s encouraging for Ireland to see this kind of contribution.

Several phases later, Porter has a third involvement on the ball in this passage as he shows his aggression and leg drive to eke out another carry beyond the gainline even in traffic, benefiting from Beirne and Hugo Keenan latching on.

AP 2

This is the kind of all-action effort that Furlong has built his reputation on in recent years and Porter is certainly doing his utmost to bring a big effort around the pitch on top of his set-piece work.

Defensively, Porter has completed 13 of his 15 tackle attempts in the last two games and brings obvious power in close quarters this area. As mentioned above, his point of difference is his jackal threat. 

TOs

Porter shows a quick release after getting Grégory Alldritt to ground here, then scoops the ball back onto Ireland’s side only for the French to win it back on the ground, but then Beirne swoops for a second Irish turnover.

Attacking ruck work is a huge part of any prop’s job and both Irish tightheads bring bite in that area. Porter has notched 40 ruck arrivals for Ireland in the last two games, while Furlong has had 21 off the bench. 

Porter hasn’t conceded any penalties in the last two games and has been disciplined in possession too, not giving up any turnovers. Furlong has been similarly sharp.

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell is left with very tough decisions in the short-term and long-term.

Porter has been superb as the starting tighthead and does not deserve to be benched for the rest of this 2021 championship, but Furlong is part of his leadership group and a proven world-class player at his best.

Furlong became part of that leadership group in early 2020 and admitted at the time that it was very new for him – particularly in terms of providing input into the team’s tactical approach.

Unfortunately, Furlong then missed a year of rugby through injury but he is back now and clearly ready to push his career forward again. Porter, at 25, is in the same boat having served as Furlong’s understudy since his Test debut in 2017. 

Of course, every team needs two good tightheads given how important the bench is in the modern game. Porter and Furlong have already been an excellent tighthead unit and the signs from the past two weekends are thoroughly encouraging.

And yet, Farrell is very open to the idea of Porter switching back to loosehead prop, where he first came through the underage ranks. He shone in the number one jersey for the Ireland U20s on their way to the 2016 World Championship final.

tom-otoole Farrell regards Tom O'Toole as a strong prospect at tighthead. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

With Cian Healy and Jack McGrath both ahead of him in Leinster at the time, Porter moved across to tighthead in the 2016/17 season and was soon entirely at home there.

However, Porter was used to cover loosehead by Joe Schmidt before and during the 2019 World Cup, making three appearances on the left-hand side of the front row as Schmidt opted to pick only five props in his squad for Japan.

Farrell has spoken publicly about the idea of Porter switching back to loosehead prop, confirming it was in his thoughts before the start of the current Six Nations.

“We’ve talked openly for some time about Andrew Porter but, at the same time, making sure that we are fair and proper to him, so he’s crystal clear whether he’s going tighthead or loosehead,” said Farrell.

“Obviously, there’s an option now, if Tadhg does come back through, that we can reassess that. Tadhg is going to take a little bit of time to get his feet back under the table so we’re trying to leave it open enough to mix things up a little bit along the way.” 

Current first-choice Ireland loosehead prop Healy is now 33 and while he continues to perform and should not be written off, he is naturally past the peak of his career. 32-year-old Dave Kilcoyne is also part of the Ireland squad and would love more exposure.

Behind them, 27-year-old Ed Byrne is currently in the squad and has four caps so far, while 25-year-old Ulster man Eric O’Sullivan won his first cap last autumn, but it’s unclear whether Farrell views them as long-term successors to Healy. 

One can’t blame Farrell for picturing Porter and Furlong causing havoc in the same starting front row for Ireland for years to come. 

The Ireland boss is a fan of the uncapped Ulster tighthead Tom O’Toole, who is still only 22 and not first-choice for his province. O’Toole is another dynamic athlete, meaning Farrell may envision him as the long-term back-up to Furlong if Porter switches across.

There’s a big call to be made by Farrell and the IRFU but either way, Irish rugby is in a good place having two high-quality props like Porter and Furlong.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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