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'Four years ago I was 24 and had played very few games of rugby'

Tadhg Furlong is ready to embrace the challenge of his second Lions tour.

Tadhg Furlong pictured in Jersey last week.
Tadhg Furlong pictured in Jersey last week.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

ALMOST FOURS AGO to the day, Warren Gatland took a seat in Auckland’s QBE Stadium and explained to a room full of journalists, microphones and cameras why he was handing a Lions Test start to a relatively inexperienced 24-year-old prop from Wexford.

“He’s still pretty green but he’s got something about him,” Gatland explained, clearly in no doubt that the young tighthead in question was ready to shine on the greatest stage. “He’s explosive, he’s quick for a big man, surprisingly quick.

“He’s just getting better and better and I think he’ll come away from this tour having established himself as being one of the top props in world rugby.”

It had only been 12 months since Tadhg Furlong made his first Test start for Ireland. He had just 16 Test caps to his name, but over the course of that series against the All Blacks Furlong would show a worldwide audience what those in Ireland had known for some time. This guy is good. Seriously good.

Furlong started all three Test matches in New Zealand and returned home a genuine superstar of the game. Four years on, nobody is questioning if Furlong is the man for the job against South Africa. He travelled to the Lions training camp in Jersey as one of Gatland’s most vital weapons, and a nailed-on Test starter.

Older, wiser, and ready to embrace the challenge.

“Ah sure look, four years ago I was 24, and I had played very few games of rugby in reality,” says Furlong, speaking from the squad’s hotel base in Jersey.

“Even just from a game (experience) point, where I stand and where I do things… And I suppose coming in (this time) you know a few of the backroom staff already, you know a few of the players already, and you know what to expect. I suppose the anxiety is probably a good bit down on what it would be if it was your first tour and you’re looking into the black hole really.”

With strict restrictions still in place in Jersey the Lions wasted no time getting to work last week. For Furlong, it meant quickly immersing himself into a new squad as the Lions set about getting their scrum functioning ahead of Saturday’s opening game against Japan in Edinburgh.

The Lions touched down in Jersey last Sunday evening and the first session of scrum reps took place the next day. It will remain Furlong’s key area of focus over the next few weeks.

The scrum is probably the one that hits me most to be honest with you, because everyone does it that little bit differently, and I suppose it kind of has to be automatic. I always feel like you have to be comfortable in there. Because it’s quite a ‘non-thinking’ thing, it needs to be quite simultaneous – muscle memory, feeling comfortable, knowing what you’re at. It just takes a little bit of time.

“We’ve done a fair few set-ups and things like that. It’s not the finished article yet by any means, but look, it’s on the players really to be open about what they are doing or what they are trying to achieve when they are back in their countries or provinces or whatever.

“It’s just trying to get everyone on the same page, and there’s a little bit of give and take with everyone in that.”

The Lions pack are working under the guidance of Robin McBryde, the man who been overseeing the Leinster scrum for the last number of years. Presumably, that makes the homework a little easier for Gatland’s Leinster contingent?

tadhg-furlong The Lions have been working hard on their scrum in Jersey. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Well from a set-up point of view and stuff like that, yes, you are quite comfortable,” Furlong says, “but I’d probably argue that a lot of the teams do a lot of the same things anyway in terms of scrum. It’s the micro-conversations between the front three, your connection with your back row that is the really important bit, and your comfortable or automatic bit in the scrum, if you get me?

“I don’t think there are many combinations there that have played with each before – I don’t think there’s any in fact – so it’s just trying to get amongst it really.”

That learning curve, where players from different countries, clubs and backgrounds come together to try carve out a plan capable of toppling the world champion Springboks, represents one of Furlong’s favourite parts of touring.

Obviously I come from Ireland, I come from Leinster, and it (being a Lion) just exposes you to different viewpoints on rugby. There is no right or wrong in any of it. It changes your mindset on how a week works, how the week is structured, how to perform for a game – you’re taking ideas and bits you like off Welsh lads, English lads, Scottish lads.

“You are forming your view on the game, really. I always find those little bits really interesting.”

The Leinster prop’s impressive mix of power and skill represents a lethal combination few in his position can match. That’s why Steven Kitshoff – the man in pole position to scrum down against Furlong following the retirement of ‘The Beast’ Tendai Mtawarira after the 2019 World Cup – was signing Furlong’s praises during the week.

Kitshoff and Furlong have a friendly relationship which dates back to their U20s days and their first encounter on the opening night of the 2012 Junior World Championship, where Furlong proved pivotal in a 23-19 win for Ireland.

“I kind of kept in contact with him ever since, really,” Furlong explains.

“There’s kind of a little prop family going around world rugby really, isn’t there? We kind of recognise each other’s weirdness in a small little way. You even find yourself gravitating to the props here at the minute, it’s just one of those weird things…

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tadhg-furlong Furlong during a squad gym session. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“We toured there (South Africa) in 2016 with Ireland, I would have caught up with him, and they came over in the November of 2017. He’s done very, very well for himself, hasn’t he? He’s such a big player for them, a power athlete, he’s physical, abrasive, strong in the scrum, he’s a bloody good player.

“He would have started plenty of Tests for South Africa, so there’s plenty of experience there. I suppose he’s what, 29 now as well, and look, he’s looking for his crack in the jersey now. We all saw there wasn’t really a starting front row for that South African team in the World Cup, they kind of had the 45 minutes and full change, that was kind of the way it was. But he’s a very dynamic player.”

And while Furlong is looking forward to rekindling old friendships, other familiar faces will be noticeably absent in South Africa. Furlong’s parents, Margaret and James, both made the long trip down to New Zealand in 2017 but will experience the tour through TV screens this time around.

“I think he might be a little bit less stressed watching it on television,” Furlong says of his father. “My mother and my girlfriend, when they are sitting beside him at the games, every time the scrum comes on, they have to kind of give him a bit of space because he is doing all of the movements with me in the scrum.

“But look, it’s going to be different, isn’t it? It is going to be different. I suppose it hasn’t hit home how different it’s going to be yet because we’re not over there, we’re in training week. It’s definitely going to be a challenge, but there are two sides to everything. I suppose we get to spend time together as a group with minimal distractions really.

“I think that can be a real positive for us and hopefully make really strong relationships within the squad.” 

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Ciarán Kennedy

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