It is six years since Tadhg Furlong was subjected to a torrid Six Nations scrummaging debut at Stade de France but the Ireland tighthead will return to Paris as the premier exponent of his craft and with plenty more in his arsenal besides.
Furlong, now 29, had just four caps to his name when he was summoned from the bench on that rainy afternoon in the French capital with Ireland leading 9-3. Conditions were awful, ball handling was tricky to say the least and scrums came thick and fast. It was a baptism of fire for the young Leinster prop, then 23, and a series of scrum penalties against the Irish front row in the final quarter proved to be the pivotal moment of the game as wily France propping replacements Rabah Slimani and Eddy Ben Arous turned the screw before the ball came out and reached Maxime Medard to score the winning try.
Looking back now, with six successive Lions Test caps to his name as well as a Grand Slam and three victories over New Zealand, Furlong is grateful for the lesson. He and the rest of the front row in that moment, Jack McGrath and Rory Best, may have been the victims of less than square scrummaging but the experience, including the challenge of playing France away from home, has long stood to the Wexford prop.
“Do you know what, it was probably inexperience. Like, playing in France is different. Just the travel is that bit longer… everything is different about playing in France and then the experience of it as well,” Furlong said. “Then you’re under your posts with three or four five-meter scrums. That probably doesn’t help either.
“You always hear when you’re younger that it takes a while for props to learn and it’s only when you’re a little bit older that you realise how true it is.
“You see it in the young fellas coming up as well, it takes time, they need to experience different things. Not just scrums but playing in different parts of the world. It wasn’t something I realised at the time but you understand looking back what everyone is on about.”
Scrummaging remains Furlong’s bread and butter and he still argues Ireland’s front row were hard done by during that 10-9 defeat.
“I don’t want to blow it up too much either because it’s not as if we conceded penalty tries or anything. The scrum pretty much collapsed onto the ground and the ref pinged us but the scrum is such a personal thing to a front rower. It’s the most important thing.
“Everyone talks about everything else, this and that, but if you can’t scrummage you’re no good to anyone. It’s your primary job. If it doesn’t go well it’s a tough day. I always say that scrummaging is the best thing in the world if it’s going well but by God you’ll stay awake at night when it doesn’t.”
Fortunately for Ireland, the scrum has been going well while the front-five forwards are also getting rave reviews for the work out in open play. Furlong has long been lauded for his soft hands and sparkling footwork but as he charged into the Welsh defensive line last Saturday and threw a no-look pass out the back to Johnny Sexton it not only showcased his own talents but neatly encapsulated the Ireland forwards’ vastly improved confidence to play heads-up rugby.
“I suppose it’s the way it has really gone. You have to be able to throw your hand at it. In terms of the game itself, it’s only a small part of it. Everyone is pushed to practice it and be good at it because it’s a big part of the game now.”
Furlong is a matter of fact about his own contribution to the cause in that respect.
“It’s something that we all practice, be that in Leinster or here in Ireland as well. It’s part of the game.
“Look, I’ve been playing rugby since I was four or five, so I’d want to be able to pass the ball a meter, wouldn’t I?”
One suspects Furlong finds the praise for ball-handling forwards a trifle patronising when he adds: “Look, you’re always practising your catch-pass et cetera et cetera. There is no excuse for being a prop and not doing that nowadays.”
So back to the bread and butter as Furlong prepares to scrum down once again with provincial and Test team-mates Andrew Porter and hooker Ronan Kelleher, a trio now widely recognised as the most dynamic front row in world rugby. The tighthead urges caution ahead of the Paris showdown.
“Look, we’re still a relatively new front-row. We actually haven’t played together a whole lot. We’re still learning, we’re still trying to get better. We are still trying to develop and get that feeling and instant game understanding together. Look, that takes time.
“Obviously we know the French pack, at home, what it means to them — that physical confrontation. We know the history of their scrum, we know what the scrum means to them.
“But I think sometimes you can get lost in the way they play — their offloads and it’s free-flowing and they all play on top of you. But at the heart of it is the front-row with the maul, the scrum. It’s still very, very confrontational.”