BY near unanimous consent, Tadhg Furlong will wear the No3 jersey for the Lions when they kick-off their three-match Test series against South Africa on Saturday. Along with Maro Itoje in the second-row and Dan Biggar at stand-off, the Irish tight-head is one of only three players guaranteed to be in the starting XV on Saturday so long as they manage to avoid injury during the next five days. This is relevant as we consider who out of Scotsman Rory Sutherland, Welshman Wyn Jones and Englishman Mako Vunipola will be the loose-head.
A big factor in Sutherland’s favour is that he has been in the No1 shirt on each of the three occasions Furlong has started a match for the Lions so far this summer, and the one time Furlong has come off the bench – in the 53rd minute of the tourists’ 54-7 defeat of the Sharks 12 days ago – it was in unison with his Scottish chum. In total, Furlong has played 189 minutes of rugby to date on this tour and 184 of those minutes have been in tandem with Sutherland at loose-head.
We’ve known all along that Warren Gatland was not going to field his team for the first Test before the big day, but it has always been his intention to give important combinations time to gel, and going into a Test series against the Springboks, there isn’t many combinations more important than the twin anchors in the front-row.
Interestingly, each of the three hookers in the initial squad – Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jamie George and Ken Owens – have started between Furlong and Sutherland on one occasion each, which might suggest that while Gatland and his coaching panel are fairly settled on their starting props, they have still to make up their minds on who should slot into the middle of the front-row.
On the evidence of the past season, not just Saturday’s outstanding performance against the Stormers, it is hard to see Cowan-Dickie being left out of the match-day 23 altogether, and the big question is whether he is a starter or a finisher.
“Especially for a front-row it’s about time in the saddle with each other so I’d like to think I have a good understanding with Rory,” said Furlong earlier today [Monday]. “We’ve played with three hookers as well so in the short weeks it can be a little bit hard to get up on the same page, but, yeah, I definitely feel comfortable scrummaging with Rory.
“It’s a huge challenge for us, isn’t it?” the Irishman added. “It’s so ingrained in their DNA, that scrum dominance, that maul dominance, it’s a huge challenge for whatever forward pack and whatever subs are selected. It’s one of the great things about playing Test series in South Africa that. I think the lads will be hugely up for it.”
Sutherland had a frustrating night against the Stormers – conceding a soft offside penalty early on and fumbling the ball in contact at the start of the second half – but he wasn’t helped by referee Wayne Barnes abdicating responsibility for keeping home tight-head Neethling Fouche straight on his own team’s scrum ball, leaving the loose-head with nothing to work against. In the circumstances, the Scotsman did well to keep it together as well as he did, and it shouldn’t diminish his Test selection chances.
The 27-year-old was solid on his own ball and remains the best scrummaging option at loose-head on the tour, and statistically speaking the biggest contributor of the three contenders.