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Why Ireland's Tadhg Furlong is the best tighthead prop in the world

The Wexford man finished a strong 2021 with outstanding performances for Ireland in November.

tadhg furlong

2021 WAS THE year in which Tadhg Furlong underlined his status as the best tighthead prop in the world.

He returned from injury for Ireland in the 2021 Six Nations, reclaiming his first-choice position for the closing three rounds, then started all three Tests for the Lions during the summer, and starred in the green jersey during last month’s autumn Tests.

While nailing all the traditional roles of a tighthead prop, the 29-year-old also brings some eye-catching bonuses to the mix.

Furlong’s obvious point of difference is his handling ability. He is one of the best passing forwards in the game and his decision-making skills are elite.

Over the course of 2021 in Test rugby, Furlong has passed or offloaded once for every three of his carries – underlining that his handling skills are a consistent threat for opposition defences to worry about.

Below, we get a fine example against Japan last month.

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The fluidity of Furlong’s catch-pass is hugely impressive.

Furlong runs square upfield as he arrives onto the ball – not drifting infield with the pass but instead posing a direct ball-carrying danger to the defender in front of him.

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That Japanese defender is bringing great linespeed but Furlong is comfortable in catching and releasing his pass behind Caelan Doris, who runs a convincing line just outside Furlong, offering him the option of a flat tip-on pass.

Instead, Furlong releases the ball out the back of Doris to Johnny Sexton.

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We can see above how Furlong eyeballs the Japanese defender in front of him, fixing the Japanese hooker and also helping to lure the next defender inwards onto Doris.

Furlong is simply giving no ‘cues’ to the defence to help them read his intention. They have to concern themselves with his possible carry and respect the potential tip-on pass, which leaves Sexton with space to run into.

Ireland score over in the right corner a phase later. 

Long gone are the days when tighthead props could lumber around the pitch without featuring in attacking play outside of clearing out rucks. All players these days need to have handling skills, but Furlong is special in this area.

Of course, Furlong is more than capable of beating defenders in a direct manner.  

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We get an example of his dynamic power in the instance above, as Furlong thunders onto a Robbie Henshaw pass and uses his upper-body power and explosive leg drive to batter through a couple of defenders before offloading to Doris.

Furlong is officially listed as weighing 125kg but despite that size, he is remarkably dynamic, while he has excellent ball-carrying tools like a powerful fend and sharp footwork.

Below, we get an example of Furlong’s acceleration and also his aforementioned decision-making skills.

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Furlong regularly scans the opposition defence before he is actually on or near the ball, searching for potential openings or weaknesses.

He does the same on his way to the breakdown above, then notes the space on the fringe of the breakdown and picks the ball before bursting through the defence.

Below, Furlong picks a nice line off Sexton to burst into space and then calmly draws the backfield defender before passing to prop partner Andrew Porter.

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While Furlong is always ready and willing to roll his sleeves up and make aggressive carries close to rucks or as Ireland batter opposition trylines, he is so effective in space that Andy Farrell’s side have increasingly used him further out from rucks.

While Furlong hasn’t yet showcased a kicking game, he is a complete attacking player, even ignoring the fact that he’s a tighthead.

Defensively, many of the same attributes we’ve mentioned above make Furlong equally effective.

In the past, tightheads have been seen as major weaknesses due to their relative immobility, poor fitness, and questionable decision-making, but Furlong is a leader in this area too.

His tackle success for the year in Test rugby is at 90% while he consistently makes a major impact in the tackle.

Tackle

Above, Furlong lands a powerful left shoulder into an Argentinian forward to win the gainline.

Later in the same game, we get a strong example of Furlong’s defensive work-rate.

First, Furlong commits into a maul and helps Ireland to deter the Argentinian drive.

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The Pumas carry infield and then a phase later, we can see Furlong sprinting around the corner in defence…

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… leaving himself in position to hammer Argentina prop Thomas Gallo when he carries.

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Furlong bounces instantly back to his feet and as Pumas scrum-half Tomás Cubelli looks to target him, the Irishman makes a second tackle to open up a turnover opportunity for his team.

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Some tighthead props might not have made it around the corner from the initial maul here, never mind delivering a dominant hit and bouncing back to their feet to snaffle a scrum-half who reckons the tighthead will be slow to react a second time.

Again, the expectations on tighthead props have changed hugely in recent years but Furlong is certainly a leader in this regard.

One area of his game that hasn’t been a major strength over the course of his career is defensive breakdown work but Furlong has been pushing himself in this regard, possibly because of the competition with the hard-jackaling Porter in recent years.

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While Porter has now moved back to the loosehead side of the scrum, Furlong is clearly still working hard to be more of a turnover threat at the breakdown.

Of course, a major part of any tighthead prop’s job is to be a big contributor at the attacking breakdown and, again, it’s an area where Furlong excels.

Across the course of Ireland’s three November Tests this year, Furlong had 60 attacking ruck arrivals – even while also being a primary ball-carrier and ball-handler for Ireland.

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Above, Furlong combines with James Ryan to rescue a potential turnover situation for Ireland.

The tighthead accelerates into the jackaling Dalton Papalii and makes a big impact but then recognises that he needs to use the ‘croc roll’ technique to fully take the All Blacks openside off the ball.

Furlong’s size and power mean he can blast defenders clear of the ball but he is adaptable and often employs grappling techniques to remove the threats. 

Any tighthead prop is, of course, heavily judged on their set-piece work. This is the bread and butter business of any player wearing the number three shirt.

Furlong ticks all the boxes here too. He has combined his athletic qualities with real technical quality and mental strength to become a superb scrummager. 

Ireland have not always used their scrum as a weapon to chase penalties but Furlong is ultra-disciplined in his work here.

Across the course of his 11 Tests in 2021, Furlong conceded just a single scrum penalty. Of course, this is a collective part of the game but Furlong is obviously an essential figure for Ireland.

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At the age of 29, Furlong has a huge bank of experience to call upon, much of it gathered in Leinster and Ireland training against the likes of Cian Healy, Dave Kilcoyne, and Jack McGrath.

The Wexford man has always understood that the rest of his skills will be much less valued if he is not world-class at scrum time but he has been consistently strong in this department over the course of his senior career.

Furlong is renowned as an excellent lineout lifter too, while his mauling skills are another strength. This is unglamorous and often unnoticed work but Furlong’s size, dynamism, preparedness and intelligence allow him to contribute strongly at the lineout and maul.

Maul

Furlong nails his role here, slotting in behind rear lifter Doris and to the left of Josh van der Flier as the openside accepts the ball from lineout jumper James Ryan.

Furlong and Ireland recognise the opening and immediately power into the space left by Japan after competing in the air, making big gains before the maul is brought to ground.

Defensively, Furlong shows similar appetite at lineout and maul. The overriding point is that all of his set-piece basics are just as impressive as the more glamorous stuff he does around the pitch.

There are simply no clear weaknesses in his game and so many strengths.

2022 will bring new challenges for Furlong, Ireland and Leinster, but the Wexford man heads into the New Year as the best tighthead in the world.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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