Growing up in the Gaelic Games hotbed that is Wexford, Neville Furlong inevitably held the ambition of wearing his county’s jersey on the biggest days of all at Croke Park.
He was talented enough as a footballer to pull on the purple and gold as a minor and U21 footballer but he also found time to try out rugby with Wexford Wanderers.
On leaving St Peter’s College, he joined the Army Cadets and this, in turn, led to Neville moving across the country to Galway and UCG as it was then known. It was there that he took up rugby once again and this led to a place on the Connacht wing in the interprovincial championship and to representing the Irish Army.
By 1992, Furlong’s stature as a hard running, strong defensive wing had risen to such a level that he was included in the Irish team to tour New Zealand and he duly scored a famous try against the All Blacks at Wellington.
It was famous because he used his considerable strength and determination to brush aside the great John Kirwan on his way to the line although only seconds earlier he had broken a bone in his ankle.
‘Sledging’, as they call it in the Southern Hemisphere, ‘slagging’ as we call it on this side of the world, was a feature of those games and Furlong shouted out to Kirwan “call yourself the best wing in the world, you couldn’t even tackle a cripple”, as he limped off the pitch.
Twelve months or so later, the Army transferred Neville to Limerick and he quickly found a new rugby home with Garryowen where he met up with Danno Hayes, the club’s chairman. They became close friends and Hayes was one of many hundreds deeply saddened when Furlong passed away last month at the tragically early age of 49.
On retirement from the Army, he had become CEO of the Park Retirement Home in Castletroy and a successful businessman and a very popular figure wherever he went.
“The first thing I noticed about Neville was this, if you said something to him, you only had to say it once”, says Hayes. “If he was to be some place at 9 o’clock, he was there at 9 o’clock. I suppose it was the Army training. He was a very genuine fellow. Every time, it was the same with Neville – straight out, he spoke his mind. He was a very level-headed guy, a very nice man. I couldn’t speak highly enough of him ... a non-smoker, non-drinker who had a wry sense of humour. He joined us in 1993 when I was the manager of the team and Andy Leslie was coach”.
One performance of Furlong stands out for Hayes - the 1994 meeting of Garryowen and Blackrock College in a Dooradoyle quagmire that the Limerick side just about won and with it a second All-Ireland League in three years.
“Neville was marking a fella called Nicky Assaf on the Rock right wing, he was a flyer and had been scoring tries left, right and centre throughout the season”, said Hayes. “The first ball Assaf got – no in fact, he got more of Neville than the ball - he was informed that he’d be getting more of the same for the rest of the day. As the match went on, Assaf got the ball a few times and he got Furlong with it.
“However, it wasn’t all that clearcut. With about five minutes to go, there was very little in it and things were tense because at the time the AIL was huge.
“There was only a score in it. Anyway, Blackrock got the ball and went wide and Assaf got the ball. Neville took off and hit him – only he didn’t have the ball! It should have been a penalty. Neville admitted to me years later that he had nightmares over that tackle.
“After that, Neville went off to the Lebanon with the Army and he was just as much a keyman there as he was on the rugby field. A year later, he was regraded junior and played a Junior Cup match against Shannon out in Corbally and suffered a horrendous fracture of his leg. He was a tough man but he was in agony.
“He later became captain of the 3rds. He ran them like an Army platoon. This was 1996/’97. They mightn’t have been the fittest or the most talented bunch of fellas but they would go through a wall for him. He got them as fit as fiddles and they were delighted because a lot of those guys would otherwise have been supping porter on a Tuesday night. In a way, they became an independent republic but in a nice way.
“One night, he said to me: ‘would we have permission to go on tour?’
‘Where are you thinking of going, Neville, I replied, thinking it would be across the water on the eve of an international or something like that’.
And he said, ‘New York’. It sounded like pie in the sky but he made it happen. They played a couple of matches and he ran that trip, self-financed it along with the boys. They had a marvellous time.
“Why did a man who had played for Ireland, for the Army, for Connacht, served with the UN in farflung fields take a bunch of guys on a tour like that? I think it may have been because he wanted to improve his coaching skills. He probably wanted to go under the radar on the basis that nobody watches the 3rds. And I suppose it was a challenge for him as well. He was that kind of individual, he didn’t want the limelight but whatever he did, he wanted to do it well.
“He ran the 3rds for two years and then got involved with the kids. He felt things needed organising a little better and there was a void at the top of the under-age committee. He stepped in as Chairman. He cracked the whip and a lot of people didn’t like it but he took no crap from anyone. And then being an ex-international and Army officer and so on, he had all the criteria and wasn’t afraid of hard work.
“Chairman of the under-age was his last job at Garryowen and he was just getting it where he wanted it In that position, he was on the general committee and as always Neville was straight out. Whatever he had to say, he said it, he didn’t go out to offend anyone but he’d stand his ground.”