Joe Schmidt has capped a remarkable rise to prominence for rookie prop Tadhg Furlong by asking him to prepare to play on both sides of the front row.
Furlong, 22, only won his first Ireland cap last weekend, when he came off the replacements’ bench against Wales and went straight into a scrummaging contest with veteran Welsh loose-head Paul James.
It was a 24-minute run and Furlong acquitted himself well on his test debut but even the tight-head might have been surprised that it was enough to secure a place in Schmidt’s 31-man squad.
Furthermore, the Wexford forward will not only cover Mike Ross and Nathan White on the right corner, he may be required to switch over to the other side as back-up for the fit again but untested Cian Healy and Jack McGrath.
As bolters go, it is a fantastic leap up the pecking order, not only benefiting from injury to provincial squad-mate Marty Moore, whose foot injury leaves him out of the picture for the time being, but also at the expense of Michael Bent, the perceived frontrunner in the versatile propping stakes.
With Bent also a Leinster man, the parallels between Furlong and World Cup 2011 surprise selection Conor Murray are uncanny, the Munster scrum-half having leapfrogged more experienced provincial squad-mate Tomas O’Leary into Declan Kidney’s squad for New Zealand four years ago.
Schmidt’s forensic knowledge of his players is such that he had long pencilled Furlong in for a dual role with his youth and inexperience working in his favour.
“He covered for Leinster a couple of times last year on the loose-head. He wasn’t actually employed on the loose-head in the game but he had readied himself to cover loose-head and some of the things that you are away from the game and you don’t really see,” Schmidt said yesterday. “And, you know, he slotted in reasonably well at loose-head.
“He is a big strong lad Tadhg, and he is a very intelligent man which just makes him very adaptable. Not that Rossy or Whitey aren’t intelligent men but once you get, I suppose, really solid and heavy (in one position) and having served as long as they have at tight-head, you don’t have the flexibility to swap positions.
“We have utilised in the past Jack McGrath going across to tight-head but Jack’s been so good for us at loose-head, we have got Cian returning, we just wanted to really have those two fully focused on the loose-head.”
Healy’s return from the neck surgery he underwent in May could come as soon as this Saturday at Twickenham when Ireland meet World Cup hosts England in their final pre-tournament game.
Schmidt yesterday gave the Lions loose-head the thumbs up and said Keith Earls would also most likely pass fit for Twickenham after coming through his most recent return to play protocols following a head injury suffered against the Welsh last weekend, although the Munster back would not be involved.
Healy, though, needs game time and Schmidt said: “Cian’s cleared to play, he’s fit to play. Probably the only problem with that would be is he ready to fit in and play?
“He’s been in and out of sessions but not doing the whole session. He’s acquitted himself well on his first two days, so we thought we’d have a look at how that goes and confirm that on Thursday.”
The size of the challenge posed by England, tactically and physically, this weekend is such that Schmidt is keeping a lengthy list of players standing by their phones for the World Cup should the worst happen to any of his chosen players, not least his props.
“(Moore) is on standby because you know if he right in two to six weeks and it is two weeks, he is a pretty useful player and not only that Marty knows his way around the environment. He knows how to slot in. Marty and Michael Bent and Stephen Archer are all guys who have been in camp with us during this period and they are all guys who could potentially get a call up.”
Furlong, though, is already in position. Two, in fact.
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