Tadhg Furlong had never faced the All Blacks before last November. Fast forward nine months and the 24-year-old Irishman has beaten them twice in four meetings.
All four of those games this season have made an impression on the tighthead prop, a couple of them left their mark, but as Furlong prepares for a fifth exposure to the world’s best team in this Saturday’s third and series-deciding Test for the Lions, the Wexford man knows he is in a fortunate position.
“Yeah, I’m incredibly lucky. I’d refer back to when we were playing New Zealand in Chicago with Ireland and lads had lost to New Zealand five or six times and I’d never played against them. They’d talk about their experiences and what works and what doesn’t work.
Like, I didn’t know what to expect,” Furlong said.
“To beat New Zealand in my first game playing them, knowing so many people had gone before, played them five or six times and never beaten them, legends of the game, you feel incredibly lucky in many ways, privileged, and to do it twice, even more so.”
Being part of the first Ireland side to beat the All Blacks already marked Furlong and his colleagues out among his countrymen to have worn the green down the years, including recent greats such as Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara, 100-cap men who can never say they’ve done what the heroes of Chicago did last November.
Then there is the fresh Lions legacy forged on Saturday night as Warren Gatland’s men recorded just a seventh Test victory on New Zealand soil in 13 tours since 1888.
Furlong was among them, front and centre as the 2017 Lions picked themselves up off the floor following the series opener the previous week and secured a famous 24-21 win in Wellington.
It sets up an intriguing final rubber back at Eden Park this Saturday, last weekend’s win giving them the opportunity to join their predecessors from 1971 and achieve what few thought possible at the outset of this tour, winning a series against the world champions in their own backyard.
Furlong’s success rate against the All Blacks may be extraordinary but rather than breed complacency it has instead heightened the Irishman’s sense of what it takes to beat the best side in the world.
“You always fear the All Blacks in the way that if you don’t get your stuff sorted, if you don’t man up and meet them head on head it’s a tough day at the office.
“They can score a try from anywhere they’re that dangerous, they’ve threats all over the park.
“If none of that works they’re just so damn consistent, good at holding on to the ball. They’re a tough team to beat. You have to keep attacking them, but it’s easier said than done.”
There is no arguing with the fact the Lions failed to get their stuff sorted during the opening Test at Eden Park but the response from the touring players was magnificent as they stopped All Blacks on the gainline in Wellington who had previously ridden roughshod over the Lions defence first time around.
“It was a massive challenge for us. Obviously very disappointed after the first Test but to bounce back, there was a bit of character shown to be what, nine points down, a few issues with our discipline, to bounce back and score two tries and get a pen at the end is hugely satisfying for this squad as a whole for the work we are putting in. It sets up a huge game nest weekend.
“Everyone was really disappointed after the first Test. They bossed us a little bit around that sort of ruck area and two or three defenders out so they probably got over the gainline really easy. Conditions probably forced them into playing in that way. It was very hard to hold onto the ball or try to offload as well. We knew we would have to be on top of our game there.
“There are lads probably trying to rectify a few wrongs and I think everyone is pretty pleased with the physicality levels. Again, you are coming back to Auckland in the third Test decider, it’s going to have to be right up there again or even push it on a bit further to match them up front again next week.”
While discipline will be addressed, the Lions promise, Furlong believes they will go into the final Test with belief renewed following their victory in Wellington, and not just for the players.
“It would be a completely different sort of mood, not only within the group but the fans as well if we hadn’t won (on Saturday). It’s very important.
"It sets up a huge game next weekend. You see the numbers out at the game, you hear them in the stand and that support carries when the going gets tough. Believe me, it is pretty tough, in terms of that first half yesterday and coming towards the end of the game their noise lifted you and when you need a pick-up they are right here behind you, it’s brilliant.”
The one factor that cannot be dismissed, however, is what the wounded New Zealanders will bring to the third Test party at their stronghold of Eden Park.
Again, Furlong has experience of an All Black scorned, when Ireland welcomed the beaten world champions back to the Aviva Stadium a fortnight after Soldier Field and felt the full force of a side intent on seeking revenge as Robbie Henshaw, Johnny Sexton and CJ Stander all succumbed to first-half pressure from the visiting team.
“They’re probably in a similar position as we were the week just gone, where your pride is a little bit dented and you want to come out... it’s a Test series, they’re going to be absolutely bulling for it as we were.
“You just have to be ready with your detail right, be physically and emotionally at that pitch that you can compete and then try and stand, go toe to toe.
“I don’t think they’ll massively change what they’re doing. They’ll try to physically come back at us which is the same in pretty much every Test match.
“Especially that match in Dublin, I remember coming off the pitch and being absolutely shattered. I was sore for days after it.
‘It was one of the most brutal Test matches I’ve played in, in my short career. So I think everyone will expect that and try and tee themselves up for it.”
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