Yellowbelly Furlong on tactics, Davy, and false perceptions

Tadhg Furlong

Tadhg Furlong wouldn’t usually be of a mind to do much the day after a game.

The Wexford tighthead has become a familiar face to Irish rugby fans this past few years but what the average punter doesn’t, can’t, see is the physical and mental toll taken by an hour or 80 minutes of rugby at the coalface.

Furlong put in a 62-minute shift against Munster in last Saturday’s Guinness PRO14 semi-final: this in a position that is the most physically taxing of all on the field given the role required in locking down the scrum.

Add in the natural proximity to the tackle and ruck areas, and the odd carry besides, and it’s no wonder he tends to lie around the house in the aftermath, feeling stiff and sore and, he admits, maybe even a bit sorry for himself. Sunday just passed was different. Wexford were facing Dublin in the Leinster hurling championship across the city in Parnell Park and the Leinster, Ireland and Lions prop couldn’t help but pull himself off the couch and take a look.

A former underage footballer with Horeswood and Good Counsel, he went to school with Wexford hurler Matthew O’Hanlon. It’s players’ nicknames rather than surnames that roll off his tongue when he roars from the stands.

Leinster teammates Jack McGrath and Scott Fardy tagged along six days ago and Bertie Ahern was a few seats down in what passes for the VIP seats at the Donnycarney venue as the counties played out a fitful but entertaining draw.

Furlong jokes that he didn’t see too much of the game given he spent so much time explaining the intricacies of hurling to Fardy, his Australian colleague, but you can’t meet a Yellowbelly hurling fan without the urge to ask about tactics.

Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald used two extra defenders for the game at what is a tight venue for hurling. It is a contentious approach that some say is misunderstood and others claim is the game’s version of sacrilege.

Furlong knows a minefield when he steps in one.

“I don’t know exactly the detail that goes into it,” he explained with some diplomacy. “It’s kind of like when sometimes lads back home talk to you about what you do in rugby and how you set up. You’re like, ‘ah, it’s not really like that’.

“I wouldn’t like to make a comment on it because I trust they know far more about it than I do. I just know from Mathew O’Hanlon ... he believes 100% what they’re doing, what they’re building down in Wexford.

“Looking on as a supporter, I can only back them on that.”

It’s an interesting take. Eoin Reddan, an ex-teammate at Leinster, said on retiring that players are behind the times the minute they hang up their boots and walk out the door, yet supporters, journalists and pundits abound with definitively delivered views.

Many is the player and manager who will shake their head in private conversation and express dismay or astonishment at some of those opinions expressed on tactics, selection policies and even perceptions of those involved and Fitzgerald generates more conversation than most.

A fiery character who has had more than his share of run-ins through the years, he is a deep thinker when it comes to strategy and hurling and that’s the side Furlong noticed when he read the Wexford manager’s latest book.

“I know Dónal Óg (Cusack) worked with him in Clare for a year. I know the extract where it says about Dónal Óg, the first meeting he had with him, he knew he was a hurling man, knew what he was talking about.

There are so many people that have come out and say what he is like off the pitch etc... You see that in rugby as well. Some lads are lippy on the pitch and, when you get them off the pitch, they are really sound lads.

The perception of Furlong this season is another case in point. There seems to be a general, subconscious feeling that he hasn’t quite hit the heights of an all-conquering 17/18 campaign, but his form hasn’t exactly fallen from a cliff.

He had, by and large, a decent Six Nations — even if his stock dipped on the back of a poor individual and collective effort in Cardiff the last day — and professes to feeling fit and fresh as the last leg of the current expedition approaches.

Furlong’s interest in tactics and how they evolve and colour a game extend beyond rugby to hurling and soccer and his appreciation for the way Glasgow Warriors play shines through as he drops a few words on today’s opponents.

“They play loose and fast, yeah. They were very, very impressive against Ulster (in the semi-final) and I suppose just creating stuff out of nothing. As soon as they see a gap, Ali Price at nine there, that one he took down the shortside...

“It looks easy but to do that instinctively is pretty impressive. The way they play rugby with speed and they run a lot of ball. They’re good ball players and good rugby players. They’re good to watch as a fan but hard to deal with as a player.”

His handle on today’s venue and it’s owners is less assured.

Any connection to Celtic and Celtic Park is tenuous: his relations on Whiddy Island are committed fans and he happened upon Roy Keane’s testimonial between Celtic and Manchester United at Old Trafford 13 years ago.

Went on a school tour in second year. All onto a bus and onto a ferry in Wexford! Not the most glamorous. I still have the scarf at home and I think we went to Alton Towers as well. We stayed one night and it was the biggest thing in the world.

This year’s World Cup might just top that.

When today’s business is done and dusted, Furlong will sign off on his annual leave. He has a holiday pencilled in for the end of next week, there’s Cian Healy’s wedding to attend and some time put aside for a trip to Wexford and maybe Whiddy too.

He’ll enjoy himself, decompress, but not so much that there will be a penance to pay come pre-season. The odd run here and weight session there will keep the body ticking over and the muscle mass more or less as is.

You wouldn’t expect anything else but it is still reassuring to hear. Furlong is just as important to Ireland’s World Cup ambitions as Jonathan Sexton or Conor Murray but thoughts of Japan and the Webb Ellis Cup have yet to colonise his frontal lobe.

“You just don’t think about it. You set long-term goals in relation to things, but in weeks like this, it doesn’t come into it. Like, I would never have thought about the World Cup unless you brought it up there, you know what I mean?

“It’s there but it’s nowhere near your head space that you’re in at the minute.

“You get over the weekend and then you’re kind of thinking that the World Cup is the next thing to chew off in pre-season, to tip away thinking about when you’re on holidays. But it doesn’t come into your head space at all.”

Not today anyhow. And probably not tomorrow when the bones plead weariness and the sum of his thoughts might be to throw an ear at the radio and hear how the Wexford hurlers are faring against Galway in Pearse Stadium.

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