HE’S the Ireland prop with ‘Wexford breeding and Whiddy blood’ – and the experts feel he is destined for big things.
In the past six months, Tadhg Furlong (23) made his Ireland debut (against Wales last September), was included in the Ireland squad for the Rugby World Cup, was hailed as ‘intelligent’ and ‘adaptable’ by Irish boss Joe Schmidt, made his first European Cup start for Leinster last month (against Bath), and is now in the Irish panel for the Six Nations, which starts this weekend.
Ireland host Wales in the Aviva Stadium this Sunday, at 3pm.
‘You can’t beat the Whiddy Island blood,’ said his uncle Tim O’Leary, who runs the Whiddy Island Ferry and the Bankhouse bar and restaurant with his wife Kathleen.
Tim knows his nephew better than most. Tadhg has been a regular to Whiddy Island all his life as his mother Margaret (née O’Leary) is from the island, before she moved, almost 30 years ago, to the village of Campile, outside New Ross in Wexford after she married James Furlong, a local farmer. She is principal at Ballycullane National School.
There is still a very strong O’Leary presence on Whiddy. Tadhg has three uncles on the island (Tim and fishermen Danny and James) – his aunt Mary lives in Dunmanway – a clutch of cousins that includes Cork U21 Seanie O’Leary and then there’s the Leinster man’s biggest fan: his grandmother, Noreen O’Leary.
‘We support Munster and she supports Tadhg, so when Munster and Leinster are playing, she’d be roaring for Tadhg – there’d be murder in the house!’ Tim laughed, before adding that it’s no surprise to see ‘the rogue’ make national headlines these days.
‘He’s a very single-minded man. His mother was the same. If you told Tadhg to knock a hole in the wall with his head, he would. He’s very determined,’ Tim pointed out, and he’s not the only person to sing the praises of the versatile tighthead prop, who shot to prominence before last year’s Rugby World Cup.
Furlong (18st 10lbs and 6’ 1”) was a surprise selection in Ireland’s 31-man World Cup squad, having only made his Test debut from the bench against Wales (16 – 10 defeat) the Saturday before the squad was announced. Furlong’s flexibility to cover loosehead and tighthead is a big advantage over others, that ability to slot into two positions.
‘He is a big strong lad Tadhg, and he is a very intelligent man which just makes him very adaptable,’ commented Joe Schmidt back in September, before adding ‘Tadhg has really impressed us.’
It’s not just Schmidt who Furlong has impressed. Former Munster and Ireland captain Mick Galwey, is a fan, as he told The Southern Star, and he feels Furlong is ready to take the next step, for Leinster and Ireland.
Furlong has 40 Leinster appearances to his name, including his Champions Cup full debut last month against Bath (he had come off the bench six times before for Leinster in the European competition), and with Marty Moore moving to Wasps at the end of the season and Mike Ross coming to the end of his career, the door has opened for the highly-rated Furlong at Leinster.
‘He has a big opportunity now,’ Galwey said.
‘He needs to keep going in the same direction he is. He is improving all the time. Tighthead props are a rare breed and he is certainly doing all the right things. Some props are just scrummagers but one of the great things about Tadhg is that he is a ball player as well, which is very important in the modern game.
‘It’s not just about what you do in the tight game, and Tadhg can put in a tackle, he can carry a ball and he can make a decision – he’s what you call an intelligent player, and that’s what you need to be to compete at international level.’
Galwey adds: ‘The door is open for him now and, with Marty Moore leaving and Mike Ross injured, this will be the biggest opportunity he’ll ever get. He needs to take it.’
George Hook agrees that Furlong has a big chance to impress, but he has questioned whether the Wexford man with West Cork connections can scrummage at the very top level, seeing as the scrum is, again, becoming a huge part of the game.
‘For a period they were talking about a prop forward’s ability to offload and pass and run, but we are coming back to an older version of the prop forward where their ability to scrummage is key to it all,’ Hook told The Southern Star.
‘The primary duty of a prop forward was to scrummage. The English and French clubs, particularly, are using the scrum as an offensive weapon, so the question we need to ask is – can Tadhg Furlong scrummage at the top level?
‘The tighthead is the single most important guy in the scrum. The tighthead locks the scrum. If he can’t anchor the scrum, it’s in trouble. That’s what Furlong has to work on.
‘If I was Furlong I’d pick up the phone to a retired dentist in Dublin, Roly Meates, and ask him could he meet up and talk with him. There are all these so-called scrum experts at various levels but the best scrum coach is Roly Meates. That’s what Furlong needs – a mentor who is technically proficient. Scrummaging is not about lifting weights, it’s about scrummaging against other people.’
Let’s not forget that Furlong is only 23 and has achieved a lot in a short space of time. It wasn’t that long ago that, after joining the Leinster Academy (which he graduated from in March 2015), he was down on Whiddy Island, along with his younger brother Eoin, showing off his moves to his uncles and cousins. Plus, he only made his Leinster debut in November 2013.
Now, with Ireland facing into a huge Six Nations campaign coming off the back of the disappointed World Cup exit, there is a big opportunity for Furlong, if he is given the chance, to step up and make his mark.
He ticks a lot of boxes, and for a prop, he has good feet too – like Mick Galwey said, he’s a ball player with a lot of strings to his bow. Even though he has predominantly played tighthead since leaving school (Good Counsel in New Ross), he is finding his feet at loosehead, as he explained in an interview with The Irish Times last September, in the lead-up to the World Cup.
‘I would have played a small bit in training with Leinster before. I would have played some underage stuff; Irish U20s, I would have played loosehead so it wasn’t completely alien to me. Obviously there were question marks about if I could play at international level because it’s a huge jump, as you can imagine, from Irish U20s and Leinster training up to international level. It’s something that I’m getting more comfortable with and if I was called upon to play loosehead, I wouldn’t have a problem with it,’ Furlong explained.
His Leinster teammate Mike Ross certainly feels that Furlong’s versatility is an added bonus.
‘Definitely, he’ll be very conscious of what to do (if he has to move from tighthead to loosehead. He’ll keep his hips square and make sure he doesn’t kick out, because that will give an opportunity for a tighthead to get inside him,’ Ross explained.
It’s ironic that the man from New Ross could eventually replace Ross, but it’s no surprise to his uncle Tim O’Leary and all his relatives on Whiddy Island that Furlong is continuing to stride forward on the rugby front.
There was a fleeting flirtation with GAA in Furlong’s early days, with his local Horsewood GAA Club, but the youngster who spent some of his holidays in Whiddy out on the tour boat with his uncle Tim is now firmly setting sail on his own course.
He has been tipped to make it. But he has to make the most of his big chance when it comes, and the odds suggest he will get that opportunity sooner rather than later.
The hardy Whiddy blood will come in handy then.