It times it seems Tadhg Furlong has done things backwards in his rugby career.
A World Cup appearance on his third cap, months before his first Six Nations appearance.
A starting role for the Lions after just nine starts for Ireland.
Victory over New Zealand before a win against Wales or Scotland.
The Leinster man has ascended the rugby ladder so quickly he must be in danger of getting the bends.
To illustrate this, one needs only look back to his first appearance in Twickenham (tomorrow is his first Six Nations appearance there) in 2015.
Ireland were preparing for the World Cup and Furlong was making only a second appearance in green. Not only that, he was brought off the bench and told to pack down at loosehead. Now one of the world’s finest tighthead props, it’s no surprise that the visit to Twickenham had him struggling to sleep.
“I came off the bench to play loosehead which was an interesting experience, with Mike Ross at tighthead, me at loosehead and Nathan White at 6 packing down behind me, it was a bit of a weird one really,” he recalled.
“Looking back, I don’t think I was ever as nervous before a game of rugby as I was before that one. It was only my second cap and I had learned loosehead in the space of a week, a crash course from Cian Healy, pushing my hips into walls and stuff, weird scrummaging drills.
“Also then at tighthead you know your role and it doesn’t change a massive amount around the pitch, but at loosehead you are in a different position in the lineout, where you go and different phases, it changes completely.
“I remember just racking my brain, looking at my notes, thinking over and over again about trying to get it right.”
The game ‘went well’, Furlong insists, although there was one moment where the task of playing out of position got the better of him.
“I only packed down once, there was one reset, it’s actually a funny story,” he said. “I was scrummaging loosehead, and I actually bound over the tighthead. Usually, the loosehead binds under and the tighthead binds over the loosehead’s bind then.
I just said ‘Oh yeah’, so we reset that one and went again.” There’s no chance of a repeat performance like that this time around, with Furlong’s reputation as high as anyone who will take to the pitch in south-west London.
He was linked with a seven-figures-a-year move to the Top 14 last year before signing a new deal with Leinster, and is widely-viewed as one of the world’s finest No 3s.
Having beaten the All Blacks and won a first Six Nations title, ticking the grand slam box would be a hell of a return for a player who has started just 17 games since his debut in 2015.
The 2009 slam, when he was just 16, ‘doesn’t stand out’ in his memory, but winning tomorrow would mean something special for him, his family and the country.
Would being the keyword.
“Maybe if you won the game it would, but there is still a game to play there,” he said. “I think the group is under no illusion of what it means to the country, the team, our families and where we’re from. But, at the end of the day, it’s ifs, buts and maybes, hypotheticals – if we don’t win the game of rugby.
“I know this sounds incredibly boring but you just need to go through the same process you do for every other game. Obviously with the game that it is, you mightn’t be consciously thinking of it, around the place, but there is that extra buzz, there is that extra vibe, you’re doing that little bit extra homework. Although you’re doing nothing different, the feel around the group is that this is a big week.”
Furlong concedes the team could be seen to have ‘nothing to lose’, having been crowned champions last weekend, but the same could be said for England — who have lost their last two games against France and Scotland.
But in its own way the desire to avoid three defeats in a row is a massive motivator, and Eddie Jones’s decision to make seven changes means Ireland will face a group of hungry, even desperate, players. He played with many of the opposition players on last summer’s Lions tour, and knows just what to expect from the new-look pack — aimed to give England a greater momentum on the gain line.
“Kyle Sincker is a good scrummager, he’s a very good ball carrier, he runs some very smart lines,” Furlong said, “he has a lot of energy and enthusiasm. Mako Vunipola, I got on really well with him over on the Lions tour. He’s a good scrummager, and around the pitch his play probably speaks for itself.
“He’s one of their key men both from a ball carrier point of view but also a link man between forwards and Owen Farrell out the back. The quality of player they’ve brought in is really high, they’re bringing in a Lion for a Lion at tighthead. The strength of Owen Farrell at 10, Ben T’eo at 12, they’re still incredibly strong. I don’t think they’ll be any weaker for it.” Ireland lost 21-13 on Furlong’s first visit to Twickenham three years ago.
But like his switch from loosehead to tighthead, he’ll hope to flip that scoreline tomorrow.
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