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19th Feb 2024

We may have reached the next stage of Tadhg Furlong’s career

Patrick McCarry

From ‘Bull’ Hayes to Mike Ross, then on to Wexford’s finest.

For the past 24 years, Irish rugby has been blessed to have three brilliant tighthead props. John Hayes, Mike Ross and Tadhg Furlong have 239 Test caps for Ireland, between them, another nine for the British & Irish Lions and have played big roles in five Six Nations title wins (including three Grand Slams).

Furlong made his Ireland debut in a World Cup warm-up against Wales, in August 2015. I remember speaking with him, in an unused changing room at Lansdowne Road, not long after his debut. Furlong was only 22 and though he had 34 Leinster appearances [10 starts] to his name, he had been injured for the early part of Ireland’s World Cup training camp and was realistic about making the final cut.

“I’d tell you that you were cracked if you told me I’d be in this situation [hoping to be in the World Cup squad] but I’ve worked hard for this,” he told me. Three days later, he was one of three tightheads selected for the final World Cup squad, backing up Ross and Nathan White.

It would take a further season for Furlong to push his way to the front of the line but, once he did, there was no stopping him. He was in from the start as Ireland rolled the All Blacks in Chicago, and was away in a hack. Of his last 72 Test appearances for Ireland and the Lions, Furlong started 65. The only meaningful Tests he has started on the bench, since 2016, have been in the 2021 Six Nations, when he was just back from an injury lay-off.

This season has been the first noticeable drop-off for Furlong and even writing that seems harsh. He has been more than reliable but we have missed those added, audacious extras that he often bowled us over with – whipping passes from the base of a ruck, running as a 10 in set-plays, throwing dummy passes and stepping defenders. Ahead of the World Cup quarter final against New Zealand, Elliott Smith from Rugby Direct stated:

“Tadhg Furlong is a very, very good scrummager – the Irish tighthead – probably not as good as he once was, to be honest. There was a period where I genuinely thought he was probably the best in the world, for a period of time. He has probably gone backwards a little bit, but he’s still very, very good – a very good scrummager.”

At the time, it was easy to thump the table and feel outraged at the perceived slight. As it turned out, Furlong was decent against New Zealand but was one of many Irish players that went okay when their best game (or close to it) was required. It was the first time that you felt it could be shifting for Furlong and that he could be heading into the next stage of his career.

Interestingly enough, despite a push across the provinces for fresh scrummaging meat, it is a player one year older than Furlong that is pushing him closest for a No.3 jersey he has practically owned for the past nine seasons – Finlay Bealham.

On the latest House of Rugby, myself and former Leinster & Ireland prop, Lindsay Peat discussed a topic that is now a live topic of debate – who starts at tighthead against Wales?

Tadhg Furlong looks on from the sideline, late in the World Cup Pool B match between Ireland and Scotland at the Stade de France. (Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile)

Tadhg Furlong still has another World Cup left in him

Following the quarter final exit for Ireland at the World Cup, Tadhg Furlong had to deal with the loss of his father, at the age of just 64. James Furlong was his source of inspiration and one of his greatest fans.

Back in 2018, on the way to helping Ireland to only their third Grand Slam, he told us about life growing up in Wexford, under the watchful eye of James and Margaret Furlong:

“My father would have got out of the butcher shop when I was quite young but people would still drop up deer or something else to cut up. You’d always give him a hand with something like that… the auld fella is quite handy with a knife so it’s good for the turkey dinner, boned and rolled meat. It’s nearly a work of art!

“It was quite light-hearted on the farm,” Furlong added. “Mucking around with the father, or out bating a hurling ball off the back wall. It was normal for me, but a bit different to some of the rugby lads and how they would have grown up.

“You’d help the auld fella out and potter around. Summers were easy enough. Out in the fine weather and playing all sorts of games. Off hurling and playing matches left, right and centre.”

James Furlong passed away in December 2023 and, quite understandably, Tadhg took time away to be with his family. He returned, last month, to play some Champions Cup ties with Leinster before reporting for Six Nations duty. Against France, he did what was asked of him in a match that was light on scrums. He only made one carry, stuck his five tackles and get about the place for ruck involvements.

Furlong himself is well aware of what is required, each time he goes into camp with Ireland. Ahead of the World Cup, he told us, “Every game you play for your country is a privilege. You have to prove it all over again. Prove it to yourself, prove it to the management, prove it to everyone.”

What has brought the debate further up the list is the excellent performance of Finlay Bealham against Italy. The Connacht tighthead was part of a front row unit that did a number on the Italians, while he made more carries and landed some big hits in defence. On House of Rugby, I mused whether giving Bealham a start against Wales would upset the apple-cart for the sake of what may only prove a minimal gain. That being said, if form is being rewarded by Andy Farrell, the head coach has a big call to make.

“Bealham could start the Wales game,” Lindsay Peat observed. “I still think England away are going to be tricky. Wales are going to come and play and have shown some good stuff in those first two rounds, but we should have too much for them. But Wales may still be a game where you can reward some lads like Bealham.

“I think we’re used to Tadhg Furlong being this exceptional prop who is so mobile – he’s like a Gaelic footballer in the body of a rugby player – but, at the same time, he’s a lot of miles on the clock and has not had much time away, with all that he has been dealing with. It could be no harm to manage Tadhg a bit, and reward Finlay for the good work he is doing.”

Farrell will make his call on Thursday afternoon, ahead of Saturday’s match against Wales. Whatever way the selection goes, Ireland are lucky to have to high-class operators for that position, with Tom O’Toole, so far, the best of the rest.

With Furlong, too, maybe we should all just settle down and appreciate him without the offloads, bullet passes and defenders left grasping at fresh air. His game has evolved so much over the years that we don’t appreciate the A, B, Cs when he delivers them.

We have been spoilt for far too long, as it is. We could well be in the next stage of Furlong’s outstanding Ireland career.

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