YOU ALWAYS LOOK FORWARD TO A GOOD, OLD-FASHIONED, YARN OF AN INTERVIEW, THE MORE SO IF IT’S SOMEONE YOU’VE NOT MET BUT WHO’S A REAL CHARACTER. THE FABULOUS TADHG FURLONG DID NOT DISAPPOINT.
We have a rendezvous in the Clonskeagh Road, the teeming 105 Café which – it’s lunch-time – is feeding the five thousand and is flat-out. Not only is there no room for Jason’s camera but Jason himself has a fever and is sobbing snot. Bless him, he looks like he died twenty minutes ago. Half the Leinster squad seem to be in here; a Ringrose in the corner and outside – outside, for heaven’s sake – are O’Brien, Reid and Cronin who’re draped in blankets like old ladies at Eastbourne and making short work of the tomato and basil soup.
‘You’ll be waiting for Tadhg, then,’ says Sean Cronin. News travels fast hereabouts. ‘You can’t miss him. He has a big entourage these days.’ And sure enough, an entourage duly arrives, The Great Man in the company of Leinster Media Manager, Marcus O’Buachalla, and a couple of smaller, cuter O’Buachallas who’re looking after their father for the day. We order coffee and apple juice, we natter for a moment, the O’Buachallas take their leave and we settle down for our chinwag.
GS: Can we start with the awkward stuff?
TF: Which is?
GS: Your name?
(He says ‘right’ but he looks slightly foxed, an expression which’ll crop up quite regularly over the next forty minutes or so.)
GS: Just how do you pronounce yourself? I don’t want to look like even more of a berk than I already am.
TF: It’s ‘Tige’. I tell people it’s like ‘Tiger’ but without the ‘r’. Mind you, trying to get them to spell it is another thing altogether; you know Christmas cards and the like.
GS: How bad has it got?
TF: Oh, ‘Tag’, ‘Tad’, ‘Tach’, all sorts. I’ve got an Amazon Alexa at home (for aging technophobes such as myself, this is some smartass machine on the Interweb that talks to you about your shopping) and she makes a right stab at me: ‘Targ’ mainly. But you get used to it. The worst thing you can do is try to pronounce it phonetically because you’ll be all over the place.
GS: Doesn’t Tadhg mean ‘poet’ or ‘philosopher’?
TF: Does it?
GS: I think so. Is that you?
TF: (Almost indignantly) No, not at all.
GS: And you’re not named after Tadhg O’Kelly?
GS: ‘Big Tadhg’ O’Kelly, the Irish chieftain at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014? He was cut down by the Vikings and, as he fell, a ferocious animal walked out of the sea to protect his dead body until it was reclaimed by his kinsmen, some fantastical creature with the head of a fox, the chest of an elephant, the mane of a horse, and the tail of a lion.
(The puzzled expression has made a swift return. He’s looking at me as though I’m some kind of eejit and I can’t say I blame him.)
TF: Well, this is all news to me. I’ll have to go home and join you on ‘Google’ and look myself up.
GS: (Defensively) It was just a thought.
TF: (Trying to helpful) Tadhg’s actually Irish for Timothy or Tim.
GS: Ah, so you’re Timmy Furlong?
TF: Timmy Furlong boy, yeah.
GS: So what else did Mum and Dad give you apart from a wonderful name? Was that where the rugby started?
TF: Absolutely. My mother’s from a small island past west Cork – only about fifteen people live there – so there wasn’t much rugby but my father’s a local feller from Wexford and he played and then got into some coaching and I was dragged around to games with him and training sessions from a young age – about four, I think – so it fell into my lap that way.
GS: And were you always a prop?
TF: No, I started out more in the back row but I don’t think anyone would like to lift me in the lineout now, would they?
GS: Yes, but hang on I’ve seen clips of you on ‘YouTube’ playing Gaelic football way back when. You were nifty.
TF: Yeah, well, I was a bit flash with the white boots and all. But that’s what you do out in the country; you play for the parish at whatever and I think Gaelic football and hurling have given a lot of rugby players a good skill set, you know. I think the appreciation of space, handling, change of direction has a massive crossover from GAA into rugby.
GS: But isn’t there a small part of you that wishes you were Robbie Henshaw?
(He’s now frowning. It’s a small one but it’s definitely a frown.)
GS: Okay, maybe not Robbie Henshaw but someone glamorous and talented?
(There goes the big exclusive with Henshaw.)
TF: No, not at all. I’m just incredibly lucky to do what I do for a living. And I don’t think prop’s that bad a gig to be honest – no one expects too much of you around the field, you shove a bit in the scrum …
GS: But your head’s always hurting, you bleed a lot, referees don’t like you, journalists ignore you …
TF: Yeah but I quite like all that, though, you know; the physical stuff, being off the beaten track, so’s you can go about your own business and focus on your own role.
(Jason sneezes. We take a small break while he wipes down the camera. He really should be in bed with a bag of lemons, poor sod.)
GS: So what do you farm down there in Wexford?
TF: Ah, we have a small place; mainly beef. It’s only fifty/sixty acres or so.
GS: So who’s more of the farmer, you or Sean O’Brien?
TF: Oh, he is. Or at least he’ll tell you he is. I’m not sure how many cows or acres he has but whatever it is, he’ll tell you it’s more than it really is.
GS: So you don’t compare tractors?
GS: Tom Youngs and Dan Lydiate – supposedly – spent most of the 2013 Lions tour talking about sugar beet and udders.
(We’re back – momentarily – to the bemused look.)
TF: No, I don’t think the Dublin lads would be standing for too much of that. Look, if I miss the muck and the manure I’m only two hours away from the farm and you can be down there in no time.
GS: And are home games family occasions?
TF: Yeah, Mum and Dad always make the trip. They’ll be in the stand, flask of tea in the car and maybe a few sandwiches as well.
GS: Is the food at the RDS that expensive, then?
TF: No, it’s just the sheer quality of my mother’s sandwiches. They’re not to be sniffed at.
GS: And which of the two is your bigger critic?
TF: Oh, Dad. He’ll get on the phone after a game and it’s not even hello, it’s question after question after question and I’m saying; ‘Look, just slow down a minute will you? How are you? Are you all right?’ ‘Ah, what? Yeah, I’m grand, grand.’
GS: Presumably he was a prop as well?
TF: He was. And he was built for it. But rugby was a small bit different back then; you know, yes, we’ll play the game but we’ll be having a few pints afterwards win, lose or draw; bit of a craic in the clubhouse afterwards.
GS: I can’t imagine how proud he must be to have a son who’s propping for Ireland.
TF: Well, he’s not the emotional type and I think he keeps it all under wraps. But you can tell under that thick skin, it’s there. And he’s been incredible throughout the journey.
GS: And where’s your first cap, Tadhg?
TF: That’s at home, I gave that to my mother, she’ll look after that, although my father might get it out and show a few people. Yeah all the jerseys, they’re all kept at home. Mind you, not on show.
(He pauses for a quiet word with his coffee. A lady with five shopping bags is trying to squeeze into the table behind and she’s about to concuss Ireland’s tight-head prop. We wait while she flops out of sight.)
GS: Just going back to O’Brien for a moment …
TF: Do we have to?
GS: … he’s ‘The Tullow Tank’, isn’t he?
TF: Yeah, well, we don’t give him the satisfaction of calling him that, now.
GS: So what do you call him?
(There’s a very hefty pause.)
TF: I’d rather not say.
GS: Is it that bad?
(He nods. I once asked Simon Zebo the same question and he took the Fifth Amendment as well. The mind boggles.)
GS: Okay, but the point is you need a nickname too.
TF: Do I?
GS: Well, of course. Rampaging around like you do.
TF: To be honest, I’d rather just go about my business and stay well away from all that stuff. Keep your head down, that’s me. If you don’t slag other people it won’t come back hard at you.
GS: So what do they call you?
TF: Not much. Tadge, Fadge, it’s all quite harmless.
GS: Nothing to do with wrestlers then?
TF: Ah, you mean the WWF thing?
GS: I do.
TF: Well that probably got blown up a bit. It was Joe Schmidt, he called me ‘WWF’ after a clip in the New Zealand game at the Aviva (this is the – now – fabled moment where Tadhg hurls Franks, Retallick and Read to the ground in a berserk two-yard carry) and then a few of the lads started calling me ‘Rikishi’ after this WWF guy; he’s a big, big bloke now with quite a special party piece which I’d rather not associate myself with.
(This interview is turning into an education. Rikishi – I later learn – invented the rump-shaking, ‘Stinkface’ manouevre in which he sits on his stricken opponent’s head and treats him to what your Aunt Irene would call, a ‘fluffy-wuff-wuff’.)
GS: So has the reaction to that surprised you?
GS: No, to your All Black rumble. I mean, there you are blipping along on everyone’s radar, we all know you’re going be a specimen, and then something like that happens and suddenly you’re a bit of a cult.
TF: Yeah, well, it’s kind of embarrassing in a way. And it’s not like I do that all the time. It just happened to be some big names in a huge game but I’ve had so many people coming up to me and the lads are slagging me, you know, ‘hey, it’s Big Time now,’ and it gets a lot of coverage. I didn’t even make that much ground …
GS: It was about a two-yard carry in the end.
TF: … yeah, it was a sort of a show-pony thing, wasn’t it, really? I’d trade it in for one really good ruck cleanout.
(I give him one of my sideways looks. Neither of us believes this for a single moment but we let it pass.)
GS: But has the hand-off always been that good?
TF: Not really, no. I don’t even see carrying ball as a massive part of my game, you know, we’ve got others with Leinster and Ireland who’re much better and you’d rather just hang back and let the good lads do it.
GS: So what did Dad reckon?
TF: He hasn’t mentioned it to me, believe it or not. He hasn’t said a word. I’m sure he’s watched it a thousand times but he hasn’t said anything about it. But then he sees everything and says very little.
GS: So if I mention the Lions, are you going to get embarrassed?
TF: (Emphatically) Yes.
GS: So shall I not mention it at all then?
TF: I’d rather not.
GS: What, you’d rather not talk about it or you’d rather not go?
(He flounders momentarily, bless him.)
GS: Another coffee while you think about it?
TF: No, thank you.
GS: Hey, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.
TF: Yeah, well that’s true. Look, it just seems so far away yet I can’t go anywhere without someone shoving it down my neck. And I just don’t see myself there. There’s a full Six Nations and a Champions’ Cup, there’s injuries to dodge; you know what I mean, it seems such a long way away.
GS: But if Warren Gatland wanted someone to go out there and throw Brodie Retallick and Kieran Read around for a summer, you’d be available?
TF: Hah, if I could do it again, then maybe. But then I suppose I’d get even more abuse off the lads.
(Jason’s now having a coughing fit. We pause while he empties his lungs into a couple of paper napkins and re-gathers himself. Truly he deserves a medal.)
GS: So what do you do when you’re not propping and tossing All Blacks around?
TF: I’m pretty laid back to be honest with you. I love to just switch off, get out of rugby mode and just relax. I live with two non-rugby players.
GS: Really? What do they do?
TF: Well, one’s in recruitment and the other’s in sales. So they come home shattered every evening …
GS: Having done a proper job.
TF: … yeah, a full day’s work and I’m there watching TV and I wreck their heads for a while and then head off to bed nice and early and they’re like, ‘thank god he’s gone to sleep’.
GS: And are these mates you’ve known from Wexford?
TF: No, one’s from Limerick – Munster territory – and the other’s from Dingle way down in Kerry – which is real Munster territory. Eclectic mix, you might say.
(I’ve never in my life heard a prop use the word ‘eclectic’. In fairness, Joe Marlar – lovely man – once spent ten minutes telling me he was oxymoronic but I don’t think either of us really knew what he was on about. ‘Eclectic’ is definitely a first.)
GS: So you’re sharing a flat with two Munster Men?
GS: And that works?
TF: Most of the time. Until we lose at Thomond Park on St Stephen’s Day.
GS: And that’s okay? Not losing at Thomond Park on St Stephen’s Day, obviously, but going home and not having to think about rugby?
TF: Yeah, it’s good. Rugby’s talked about very little really and I like that; switching off, forgetting about the day job for a while. I think that’s important. It keeps you fresh and invigorated when you come back into training the following day. Ready to go back at it.
GS: So who does the cooking?
TF: Ah, well, we’re all over the shop because everyone’s on different schedules.
GS: And the domestic chores you try to avoid are, what, precisely?
TF: (He considers this for a moment.) I don’t like taking the bins down. I hate it. They’re always over-packed and you always have to scrunch the last bit into the top and then traipse down into the cold garage underneath in the car park and it always smells. I’d rather clean the oven or do the hoovering.
GS: Seriously? Ahead of emptying a bin?
TF: I would, really. Look, don’t ask me anymore.
(I think he’s suddenly realised he’s a prop and he’s talking about vacuum cleaners but, then again, if you’re a reporter, you can wait years for an opening like this.)
GS: (Mischievously) Have you got an apron, then?
TF: (Defensively) No, I don’t have an apron. But do quite like a tidy house. I’m a bit weird like that.
GS: (Accusingly) You’re a neat freak, aren’t you?
TF: (Unashamedly) Yeah, I am; not necessarily clean, mind, just neat.
GS: So if we went home now and we peeped into your wardrobes …
TF: Yeah, all folded and stacked.
GS: ... everything would be neat as ninepence.
GS: On parade?
GS: So where does that come from? You’re a bloody farmer.
TF: I don’t know. I’ve always been like that. Just organised, you know. Really organised. Over organised. Any away trip and I’m bringing a big suitcase on wheels while the rest of the lads have a backpack with nothing in it. I’ve an extension cord so I can get my phone next to my bed when it’s charging. It’s weird.
TF: Really. I even bring my pillow. Consistency of sleep’s important, isn’t it?
GS: You don’t bring your mattress as well, do you?
GS: But you would if you could?
TF: Listen, I’d bring my bed if I could.
(We order more coffee, or at least I order more coffee. He doesn’t snort caffeine after two in the afternoon and it’s now long gone two o’clock. We resume.)
GS: I’ve a confession to make.
TF: Go on.
GS: I trawled round the Leinster dressing room trying to get some dirt on you.
TF: Bet you had to dig pretty deep, didn’t you?
GS: Well, not dirt exactly, just, you know, a line or two to drop into the conversation.
(He nods but he’s saying nothing.)
GS: Hey, I’m a journalist. What do you expect?
(He’s still saying nothing. If he’s trying to make me feel guilty or nervous or both, it’s working a treat. I think this is payback for the apron thing.)
GS: Anyway, someone who shall remain nameless, unless of course you threaten physical violence …
(He raises an eyebrow half a millimetre.)
GS: It was Rhys Ruddock …
(I can almost hear him making a mental note)
GS: … said, ‘ask him about truffle farming’.
(Finally there’s a wide smile; finally I stop sweating.)
TF: Ah, yes.
GS: So what’s all that about?
TF: Well, it was just me trying to take advantage of some of the Dublin lads, you know, lack of appreciation of rural things so I made up a story about being a truffle farmer’s son and that I had three pigs that’d head off into the Wexford trees and snuff out for truffles.
GS: Sounds plausible enough. And who fell for that?
TF: Actually, believe it or not, I had Leo Cullen on the hook for a while. People kept coming up to me saying, ‘I love truffles, can you bring me up a truffle’. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who fell for it.
GS: I spoke to John Fogarty too (the Leinster scrum coach) and he said the detail you get into with the scrummaging is remarkable. Is that the ‘over organised’ thing again?
TF: Probably. I think it’s the fear of getting into the first scrum and thinking: God, I wasn’t expecting this. I think fear’s a big word, not fully knowing your opposition. So during the week – and I’m sure some of the lads give out about this – I like to get my scrums in and get my analysis done. It’s just the thought that you’re going to get your arse handed to you at the weekend of you’re not up to scratch.
GS: So how detailed do you get, then? Do you have a Plan B, a Plan C? Is it like chess almost?
TF: It’s more looking at the whole picture, really. What angles are they working with? Most teams will be scrummaging off one or two ways – your ball, their ball – and you can sort of spot those trends and work a plan from that. It’s never a straightforward science and no matter how many scrums you look at on tape, until you get in there and you can feel what‘s going on – what’s the loose head doing, where’s the hooker going, is the weight coming across from the tight head, am I getting enough pressure from my back five – it’s not until you get in there that you know how to counteract it.
GS: And do you love all that?
TF: I think scrummaging’s the best thing in the world when you’re going well and probably the worst thing in the world when you’re not. It’s a tough place to be as a tight head when your scrum is under the pump.
GS: There looks to be a real edge to your game; an intensity to what you do. Is there a chip on the shoulder, a determination to prove something?
TF: I wouldn’t say to prove things, but there’s a massive amount of pride of where you come from and the people you represent and that does drive you. You don’t want to let them down.
GS: What, your family?
TF: Family, friends, my parish, my county, you know Wexford’s a proud, proud, sporting county.
GS: But because you’ve had to fight to get where you are and you’re not D4 and a smart tie at Blackrock College, does that make you scrap all the harder?
TF: I don’t know. It’s hard to think of yourself that way. I’d say I grew up in a very different sort of rugby to those who went through the schools system here in Dublin. And I do enjoy the physical contact, the physicality of the sport, you know. But I think you just focus on yourself and get yourself right, your job, your role. I’ve never been a big pump-the-chest bloke, boxing dressing room walls and going off the rails. I’m simmering, I’m up for the game but at the heart of it all you’re thinking about the technical aspects that you want to get right.
GS: So when was the last time you lost your temper?
TF: In a game? Very, very rarely. In training it can get a bit touchy – when it’s not full contact or half contact or when you’re in the ruck, you’re not in the ruck, that can be frustrating because someone’s making a mess of it and it gets a bit fiery – but in a game you just have to bring that aggression in a controlled manner that can help the boys.
(Jason’s batteries have run out, or more accurately, the batteries in his camera have run out, although Jason could do with a couple of AAAs himself. It’s time to cut to the chase and talk about sex.)
GS: I’m told – and its props who always tell me this like when your mother tells you mothers are always right …
GS: … I’m told that women find props irresistible? Is this true?
(He’s now giving me both the frown and the raised eyebrow)
TF: Well, maybe my mother quite likes me; the girlfriend, probably, you know?
GS: But beautiful women don’t proposition you in the street?
GS: I think it’s supposed to be the teddy bear thing.
TF: Dad-bod? Is that what they call it, a bit pudgy?
GS: I wouldn’t know. As you can see.
(He smirks. In fairness, I am trying to cut down but I’m chemically dependent on lemon drizzle cake.)
GS: But middle-aged women don’t send you their underwear?
TF: No, I think that would be quite weird, wouldn’t it? Off-putting.
GS: They do it to Tom Jones.
TF: Yes, but it’d be a bit odd to be sending that to an overweight, oversized prop. You know, sweaty.
GS: You’d be surprised. But at least there’s a girlfriend?
GS: So you’re in love?
TF: Tricky question that one, isn’t it?
GS: Shall I not ask it, then?
TF: No, thank you.
GS: Okay, so, going back to what you were saying about pride and the parish; how big a trump card do you think that is for the likes of Munster and Leinster when it comes to the Champions’ Cup?
TF: I think it is, you know, you really are playing for where you’re born and raised and with guys you’ve grown up with and I think there’s something very, very special about that. Stuart (Lancaster) speaks of how lucky we are to have those relationships with lads for years and years.
GS: And is Europe how Leinster still measures itself?
TF: Yeah, I think it is, especially when there’s guys in the dressing room with three medals and the younger guys who’re chasing a bit of that themselves, you know, hungry to succeed and push on and add a bit of buzz and a bit of youth to the place. And some of those younger fellers are really flying now. We were on the bus going to the ground in Northampton and I remember looking around me and thinking, Jesus, I’m the oldest one here. And I’m just after turning twenty-four and I’m thinking what is going on?
GS: So where do you sit on the bus?
TF: Middle to front.
GS: I’d have thought you’d be bossing the place from the back seat.
TF: No, no, no, I keep my head down and let the big dogs do their thing. I think you have to have a few trophies with Leinster to get back there.
GS: So you have to earn a place at the back?
TF: I suppose so. I’m pretty happy where I am to be honest. But that’s another thing here; there’s so many lads with so many medals and so many trophies plus all the young guys. It’s a really good place to be and a really good learning environment. All we’ve got to do now put that on the field.
And that should have been that, except that he took us for a ride in his car – immaculate, perfumed, vacuumed to within an inch of its life – and we nattered some more about Business Studies and Dublin traffic. Wonderful man; grounded, amusing, genuine and, if and when the time comes, he’ll make a lovely Lion – assuming Warren Gatland can find someone brave enough – or small enough – to share a room with all his suitcases.
19 JANUARY 2017