Tadhg Furlong’s crash course in dark arts of the scrum

Tadhg Furlong’s impact since assuming the role of first-choice tighthead with Ireland has been immense but he has some way to go before matching Mike Ross’ ability to dissect the scrum’s dark arts on behalf of your average Joe.

Ross could talk all day about scrummaging.

For five years there, from the time John Hayes retired until Furlong emerged almost fully formed from the unlikely surrounds of Campile and into the world of pro rugby, Ross was the man who kept the Irish scrum locked down and the public in the loop as to what the hell was going on.

His knowledge of opposing players and opposing packs is legendary.

A self-confessed tech nerd, Ross thinks nothing of whiling away hours on his laptop on the game’s signature setpiece. He even came across a nugget about the French investing in a €1m scrum machine during a piece of independent research four years ago.

Furlong has been nothing if not engaging and good craic off the field but burrowing into his mind for hints and tips on the French setpiece due to confront Joe Schmidt’s Ireland at the Aviva Stadium this weekend proved less illuminating at first.

“Ehm, yeah,” he said earlier this week. “It’s a real challenge.

“They have a really destructive scrum. It’s a huge challenge in itself given the way they have performed in the first two games, especially in the scrum.”

So far so little, then.

Ireland’s scrum has arguably been the one area to have operated at an optimal setting throughout the opening two games against Scotland and Italy and, in France, they pack down against a unit that has probably been their equal in that regard through two rounds.

Furlong labels them a “different challenge”. But how so?

“They obviously have a huge amount of weight but the way that they scrummage isn’t something that you would see too often in the PRO12,” he started to explain. “It wouldn’t be the way that we scrummage...”

So, you’re trying to say they do it illegally?

Cue laughter. “I’m not trying to say illegal. It’s different.”

One more time with feeling, then. How so?

“They haven’t given their opposition much ball to play off at all. For us, that’s really low statistically and obviously we want to play off the back of the scrum, get our backs going and the ball moving so that’s a huge challenge for us.

“(Rabah) Slimani has been coming off the bench and he is a good scrummager off the angle. Both hookers are strong men and the looseheads as well.

“It’s just about us having a plan and getting the first part of our scrum right, trying to negate that.”

That’s a group thing but the tighthead can exert an inordinate influence.

Scroll back through the tape of Ireland’s loss to the Scots and the overhead camera seemed to show Furlong burrowing in, illegally, at an angle on the inexperienced Allan Dell.

Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, the scrum is no refuge for angels.

It will be a key battleground again this weekend, though surely not to the extent it was last year when Ireland somehow lost 10-9 in Paris after a commanding first-half performance and six-point lead crumbled under the weight of a siege built on a newly-dominant French scrum.

Ireland, clearly on top for the first period, succumbed to a succession of heaves after the arrivals of Slimani and Eddy Ben Arous.

With Ross and Cian Healy out injured, it fell to the raw pairing of James Cronin and Furlong to come off the bench but the tide wasn’t for turning.

The vice tightened inexorably between the 65th and 70th minutes when Ireland conceded a trio of scrum penalties under their own posts and faced the prospect of a penalty try until the ball squirmed loose from another and Maxime Medard cantered over for the winning try and conversion.

“Scrum after scrum and we got a good scrum at the end of it and the ball spurted out and they ended up scoring off it. Yeah, it was challenging. I never felt something like that before, the way it was coming across from the tighthead and the hooker and the loosehead walking around.

“It’s something you see again ... Castres scrummage in a very similar way.

“They probably wouldn’t have the personnel to execute as well as France do.

“But you see it creeping up and you learn from your experience.

“That’s all you can do really: Learn your lesson.”

Class resumes on Saturday.

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