TADHG FURLONG RECKONS the Gaelic football and hurling in his youth in Wexford helped, but it’s really in more recent years that the tighthead prop has become truly comfortable in handling the rugby ball at the top level.
Seeing the Ireland international flicking an offload or sending an accurate link pass to one of the backs are now regular sights when Joe Schmidt’s team play or when Furlong lines out for Leinster.
Take last weekend in Paris, for example, when Furlong threw three passes even in wet conditions. Go back to November and he delivered four passes against both South Africa and Argentina, as well as making three offloads across those two Tests.
“I suppose it’s not something consciously you work on, or you worked on coming through the age grades,” says Furlong of his handling ability.
“You have maybe a small bit of hand-eye coordination [from the GAA], and then mainly I suppose through Stuart Lancaster at Leinster was a massive one, pushing our skillset and we do a lot of skills – passing waves and stuff like that in training – and you become that little bit more comfortable.
“I suppose then it’s just time in the saddle as well, time training and time playing games.”
Indeed, Furlong now looks as comfortable as anyone in the Irish pack when it comes to his ball-handling skills.
To see the likes of himself, James Ryan and Peter O’Mahony making link passes out the back door to Johnny Sexton and co. again last weekend stresses that Ireland are continually looking to develop their attacking game – even if it remains work in progress.
Long gone are the days when a tighthead prop like Furlong was all about the set-piece and putting the head down into contact, although he does point out that the backs remain the key attacking decision-makers.
“The game has moved on a small bit, ” says the former New Ross RFC man. “You get those forwards who, if there’s space out wide, might play it back and then when you get to the edge, you suck in defenders.
“I wouldn’t say me or James Ryan are typical in the fact that we call that. We’re in position to carry and if the back sees space, they’ll trigger and we can play them the ball, we wouldn’t be the ones deciding that.
“We’re just firm enough to carry and if it’s on to play, we’ll get the call and we’ll play it down the line.”
All in all, Furlong is pleased to be contributing to the expansion of Schmidt’s attacking game plan and he can see it evolving all the time.
“As a player within the group, I can definitely see and say that we are.
“It definitely helps when you get quick ball, you’re able to play on that, and within the group we definitely feel that our attacking game has evolved over the last few years and wherever the space is, we’re going to try to play to it.”
Those words will come as encouragement to Ireland fans who were disappointed with their side’s failure to score a try in Paris last weekend, but Furlong and his team-mates felt the sting of their shortcomings in attack too.
Generating consistently quick ball and being more cohesive with their attacking shape should help them to score tries against Italy on Saturday, but the fact that they come into this second round clash with a win behind them is satisfying for Furlong and Ireland.
Even if it took last-gasp drama to seal the win in a game Ireland should never really have come so close to losing, Furlong was happy with their start to the Six Nations.
“It’s about winning,” says the prop. “We could have played the best game of rugby or played really well and lost and that would have been gutting. When you look back on that game you will say that we won in France, which is incredibly big, especially in the Six Nations.
“There’s definitely aspects of our game that we want to improve on but a win in an historically hard place for teams to go is very pleasing.”
Sexton’s drop goal was a huge moment for this Irish group and Furlong suggests it will instill even greater belief in Schmidt’s players.
“When you have such a big moment like that after being under the pump – they scored a try – we have to claw our way back and find a way to win and I suppose the manner that we did it, the manner of the drop goal and the last kick of the game and there was such a build-up, as a collective obviously it brings you a massive amount of satisfaction.
“It’s the manner of the last kick of the game – you scored a goal in extra time sort of job to clinch the win. Especially in a Six Nations match as well when it means so much. There was a lot of pressure on us to perform and to win like that, there was an outpouring.”
Scoring ‘a goal in extra time’ is a fine way of putting it, particularly given how Ireland celebrated Sexton’s winner.
Schmidt didn’t let that one slide in the video review.
“We had a little bit of a joke about it!” explains Furlong. “There was a montage comparing it to some soccer goals which is good to lighten the mood at the start of a team meeting.”
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