A year on from making his first Test start for Ireland in the second Test against South Africa at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park, the tighthead prop will make another significant entrance into a storied arena when he makes his Lions Test debut at Eden Park.
It is a rapid rise for the 24-year-old Wexford man but Lions head coach Gatland believes the rising Leinster star’s career trajectory is only just taking off.
“Tadhg is getting better and better. He’s still pretty green but he’s got something about him. He’s explosive, he’s quick for a big man, surprisingly quick,” Gatland said yesterday after naming his matchday 23 to play New Zealand.
“He’s a good ball carrier and he had a nice bit of inside play with Johnny [Sexton] and then an offload (against the Maori All Blacks last Saturday). That’s what we’re encouraging players to do and he’s the modern prop, for me.
“You’ve got to have more than just set-piece, scrum and lineout. You’ve got to be able to get around the field, you’ve got to be able to defend, so I think in the next few years he’s definitely going to be one of the world’s best in that position. 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.”
Lions scrum coach Graham Rowntree has also been mightily impressed with Furlong after working with the Irish prop for the first time on this tour.
“Very impressed. He’s a young man, a young prop still learning his trade,” Rowntree said. “But he’s learning a lot on this trip and I thought he was exceptional on Saturday night (against the Maori).
“With Tadhg, it’s a lot more than just set-piece; his game-involvements. He’s putting shifts in the set-piece and around the field. He’s in a group, look at Dan Cole last night (against the Chiefs), in terms of tightheads I thought he played exceptionally well. It’s going to be difficult, but Tadhg is certainly learning a lot as a young player and I’m enjoying working with him.”
It was Rowntree’s former boss in the England set-up, Stuart Lancaster, who first planted the seed in Furlong’s mind that he could become a Lion, however short his time at the top level of professional rugby had been.
“It’s kind of weird, the journey you take, when you get your first international start and you’re exposed to the big world that it is and the pressures that come with it,” Furlong said.
“As you get used to it a little bit and spend time in that environment of high-pressure games, you can probably start relaxing and let your game play a little more.
“I probably came out of that South Africa tour (last summer) with a lot of confidence. I thought I went reasonably well in my first Test start against a good scrum. In November, then, when you start to pile minutes on minutes, it probably gives you that bit of confidence that you can start pushing onwards or aim for something.
“But I think the real moment of focus for me this year was when Stuart Lancaster came into Leinster (as senior coach). He has worked with a lot of players in different environments, and a lot of players who are here on tour. We basically had a one-on-one, where we sat down and he said, ‘From what I’ve seen, you can really push on and try to aim to be a Lion this year. At first, I was ‘Jeez man, what are you saying?’
“I probably didn’t see myself in that picture but he probably backed me and I suppose gave me a focus and goal to drive towards.”
The drive paid off yesterday as Furlong was named at number three and he added: “It’s the pinnacle for any players with the four nations coming together.
“To get a chance to go out and represent that and live a boyhood dream is hugely exciting.
“You always think of the club back home where you started, your family who carted you here, there and everywhere.
“There’s everyone else who has helped you along the way — Clontarf, Leinster, Ireland, etc. It’s a very proud day for me and all those people.
“It probably doesn’t get any bigger than the All Blacks in Eden Park.
“We’ve prepped well as a team and we had a session yesterday afternoon as well to keep going at things and perfect little things we want to perfect, so I’m looking forward to what is a huge challenge. These are the sort of days that you play rugby for.”