TADHG FURLONG ISN’T a particularly big football fan, nor has he been to Celtic Park before, but the Leinster prop — mainly through his uncle and cousin — has a strong appreciation of what makes the venue for today’s Pro14 final as special as it is.
From St James’ Park a fortnight ago for the Champions Cup final to the home of Celtic Football Club today, Leinster’s end-of-season run has taken them to two iconic sporting venues.
Furlong during Friday’s captain’s run at Celtic Park. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
Leo Cullen’s side will this evening bid to record back-to-back Pro14 titles and finish their season on the ultimate high, having suffered deep frustration and heartbreak in Newcastle when they surrendered their European crown to Saracens.
When the Leinster and Glasgow Warriors line up in the Celtic Park tunnel, the significance of the moment will not be lost on Furlong, with ‘Paradise’ becoming the seventh stadium to host a Pro14 decider.
Leinster, although defending champions, know they will be up against it in Glasgow’s back yard, with Dave Rennie’s side set to be backed by the majority of the expected 45,000 in attendance.
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After that first European final defeat, the eastern province will be desperate to avoid falling at the final hurdle for the second time this season, although their record in this fixture is played eight, won four, lost four.
It has been another excellent season for Furlong on an individual level, but from the perfection of last term, this year has contained a lot more peaks and troughs with both Leinster and Ireland.
“It has gone fast,” he says. “I tell you what, the year has gone incredibly fast and it is mad when you think back and we started the year on such a high with the November series and then Christmas with the Champions Cup and stuff like that.
“The thing about sport is that what happens in the past, you move on so quickly and it tends not to stick in your brain a whole lot. It’s always forward-focused with a glance in the rear-view mirror to see what lessons we can take from losses or downs or whatever.
Furlong has made 17 appearances for Leinster this term, in addition to starting all but two of Ireland’s Tests this season, and that ability to remain injury-free has allowed him to manage his body on his own terms.
The Wexford native started all nine of Leinster’s Champions Cup games and, having put in a big shift against Saracens, was able to get back on the horse a week later to play another key role in the semi-final win over Munster, notably linking up with Cian Healy and Sean Cronin for the latter’s second-half try.
At the end of a long, hard season, Furlong is in a good space mentally and physically.
“Of course you have some knocks and niggles that you pick up, especially in these sort of big games where the physicality and the intensity rises,” he continues.
“You always pick up a few knocks but in terms of your headspace that you’re in and the body in general, I feel fresh.
The prop is feeling fresh and fit. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
“That’s a testament to how Irish rugby players are managed through the IRFU and Leinster, and also through the medical staff here who do unbelievable work and, I suppose, the time and energy that they put into getting you robust so you’re not injured.
“The work they do on a day to day basis to keep on top of niggles and the S&C staff who are very reasoned or grounded, with an understanding of what you’ve gone through on the weekend and how you can best freshen up to play at the weekend.
“I wasn’t on the pitch today, not many of the lads who started on Saturday were on the pitch. You don’t have to go out and watch what’s happening, it’s ‘take your time lads, freshen up and we’re going to train hard tomorrow.’
“I suppose as a player that’s nice to hear and lets you recharge the batteries.”
After tonight’s final, Furlong won’t have long to recharge those batteries. With Leinster’s season again running into the last weekend of May, and Ireland’s World Cup training camps only around the corner, Joe Schmidt is due to name his extended squad early next week.
It means Furlong and his Leinster team-mates will only get three weeks off before linking up with the national squad as preparations for Japan take centre stage and ramp up a gear.
“The World Cup, it’s there but it’s nowhere near your headspace that you’re in at the minute,” he stresses.
Furlong will be extra diligent while away on holiday with his girlfriend over the coming weeks, cognisant of what is coming down the tracks.
He explains: “You’re just making sure you’re muscle mass and you’re still lifting. I mean you’re not killing yourself, you’re mentally refreshing but you’re not letting your body go to muck either. You’re ready to hit the ground running.
“I’m going away at the tail-end of next week so you can train a few days and come back the middle of the following week, train for two days then I have Cian’s [Healy] wedding, come back from that and then I have a week’s run in when I’ll probably go down to Wexford or maybe down to Whiddy.
“I can lift wights for three days and then maybe do a small bit of running three days. That’s just an hour and a half out of your day and you’re done. It’s just about staying somewhat fit and you’re ready to hit the ground running then.”
For now, the focus is on Glasgow and winning another trophy with Leinster. The hurt and disappointment of Newcastle still lingers, engendering further motivation and drive within the dressing room.
Captains Callum Gibbins and Johnny Sexton. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
Whereas 12 months ago, Leinster were bidding to win a historic double, Cullen’s men are today gunning to finish another impressive campaign with a piece of silverware, and their fifth league crown.
“We’re an ambitious group and obviously losing a European final is pretty devastating,” Furlong says. “If you think back to it, it’s still disappointing. It’s a chance to brighten up our holidays. And I suppose it’s not just for the group of players who are taking the pitch either, it’s the wider group and everybody who has contributed in the Pro14 this season.
“That means a lot to the squad — the wider squad and the staff — and the other side of that is the supporters. It genuinely has been amazing over the last few weeks. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a scene like before the Champions Cup final in Newcastle. That was incredibly special.
“The players that are leaving as well, and it’s the final game of the season. I don’t think anyone wants to taste, or experience, such a dejected dressing room again, and especially so soon after the Champions Cup final.
“I don’t think you’ll ever forget losing a final. I think it’s something that you learn from it, and you live with it, but yeah, if we can find a way to win at the weekend which is obviously not going to be any sort of easy task, it definitely boosts the feeling in the camp about the year we had.”
Gavan Casey is joined by Ryan Bailey and Andy Dunne to look ahead to Saturday’s Pro14 final, look at whether Joey Carbery’s move has paid off and Jack Conan talks about how his body is holding up.:
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