Ireland v England: Tadhg Furlong and Kyle Sinckler’s battle at prop

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Ireland v England: Tadhg Furlong and Kyle Sinckler’s battle at prop
Tadhg Furlong (left) started every British and Irish Lions Test on the 2017 tour of New Zealand, with Sinckler (right) replacing him off the bench on each occasion
Six Nations 2019: Ireland v England
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin Date: Saturday 2 February Kick-off: 16:45 GMT
Coverage: Live on BBC Radio 5 live and Radio Ulster, plus live text commentary & highlights on the BBC Sport website.

Like all players in a World Cup year, surviving the coach’s cut is never far from Kyle Sinckler’s mind.

But back in 2006, aged 13, he was helping make the calls, rather than being subject to them.

“We picked anyone absolutely massive, anyone winning 100m or 200m at sports day, and the kids who got in the football and basketball teams,” explains Anastacia Long, who taught Sinckler at Graveney School in south London.

“We had to do a bit of a PR job on some of the boys and their parents. Some of them had completely the wrong impression of rugby, thinking that as soon as they played one game they would have cauliflower ears, that kind of thing.”

Graveney School’s first rugby team with Sinckler in the back row, fifth from left

A few weeks earlier Sinckler, who started playing at nearby Battersea Ironsides, had approached Long to ask her to set up the state school’s first rugby team.

It soon became clear the two would have to collaborate.

“I said to him I could arrange the fixtures and drive the minibus but that I knew nothing about rugby,” said Long.

“He was captain and fly-half. He did a lot of the tactical stuff early on, sorting players’ positions and when things went wrong in games he would coach his team-mates through it.”

The team was a success. They beat most of their state counterparts before ruffling feathers among south London’s fee-paying and facility-rich schoolboys.

Sinckler stood out thanks to both his background and the formidable way he filled the foreground.

Selected for England Under-16s in 2009, most of his team-mates were from schools where rugby was a way of life rather than a cobbled-together collective of the committed and the conscripted.

Certainly his England team-mates were not used to sharing the same kit between every year of the school. Budget constraints meant the shirt Sinckler was stuffed into one day could be drowning a Graveney year seven the next.

“Kyle got spotted by a few teachers at other schools partly because he was wearing a shirt so tight it looked like it was sprayed on,” remembers Long.

“But he was also built like a prop and would try drop goals from just near halfway.

Sinckler in action for England Under-18s as a 16-year-old in 2009

“He knew what he wanted from a young age. He saw the opportunity that rugby was going to offer him, something that other kids his age were not going to have – a 100% scholarship and the possibility of a pro contract at 18. Not many kids from that background get that opportunity.”

By the time he took up the offer of a paid-for sixth-form education at Epsom College, Sinckler had already been signed up by Harlequins and shifted into the front row.

Now 25, he toured New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions in 2017 and was one of England’s best players during last autumn’s Tests.

The legacy of his youth in the backline is still there. His cannonball runs come with sniper’s stealth, as clever angles take him galloping into open space. His hands are deft and accurate as he picks out his support runners.

When Adam Jones, the former Wales and Lions prop, was signed by Quins in 2015, part of his brief was to help Sinckler deliver on his potential and fill in any gaps in his set-piece know-how.

“When I met him he was a little raw, but I knew he was going to be a good player,” Jones told BBC Sport.

“He is not the biggest prop in the world, but he offers different things with his ball carrying. His skill set is ridiculous. He works hard at his game and technique, which has to be spot on because he has not got the bulk to get himself out of trouble.”

When Jones is asked who Sinckler most reminds him off, he pays the Englishman the compliment of name-checking the other half of Wales’ famed ‘Hair Bear Bunch’ front row.

Adam Jones (left) formed a famously fuzzy front-row partnership with Duncan Jones (right) for Neath, Ospreys and Wales

“Probably the front row he most reminds me of is Duncan Jones, he was a loose-head but not the biggest, but was dynamic, quick, excellent ball handing. They are very similar,” he said.

“Kyle is definitely a frustrated fly-half or centre. He can pass with the best of them, certainly prop-wise. He has got the flicks, the 20-metre pass. The only thing he can’t do is kick.

“Since I have been here I have probably bet him 30 times – place kick off the floor, 30 metres out – for a bucket of fried chicken and he hasn’t kicked it once.”

Relive some magic moments from last year’s Six Nations

This weekend, Sinckler’s one-man variety act will be up against Tadhg Furlong, who has been master of all the tight-head trades for nearly two years.

The 26-year-old has been a cornerstone of Ireland and Leinster’s international and domestic dominance.

In many ways, he seems the polar opposite of Sinckler.

Raised in rural County Wexford, he was helping muck out the family dairy herd by the age of four, a world away from the hustle of south London.

With his father playing and then coaching at the local club New Ross, Furlong did not have to go far to find a game of rugby.

While Sinckler’s aggression at times strays into trash-talking – the referee’s microphone picked up on a ‘snitches’ barb that incited a bout of shoving and finger pointing in November’s meeting with Australia – by contrast, Furlong lets his performances do his talking for him.

But both are scrum nerds, recalling particular opponents’ technical quirks in detail, and both played other sports alongside their rugby early on.

Furlong was a handy Gaelic footballer, skittling opponents in age-grade games. Sinckler turned up to his first rugby training session in full Manchester United kit.

And like Sinckler, Furlong did not go to the ‘right’ school. When he arrived at Leinster, he was driven by the thought of proving himself among the products of the Dublin private school system.

Furlong playing at the the 2011 World Junior Championships, where he was coached by Mike Ruddock

Mike Ruddock coached Furlong at Ireland Under-20 level at the World Junior Championship in Italy in 2011.

“You knew he was a little different to the normal lads who had gone to the traditional rugby schools,” he told BBC Sport.

“Those guys from outside those usual schools always had a bit of an edge to them and Tadhg did not want on that front.”

Furlong’s sly, dry wit off the pitch made him a key member of the squad off the pitch as well as on it.

“Even for a Welshman like me, with a wife and mother from Ireland, some of the first names and surnames were a little difficult to pronounce,” remembers Ruddock.

“Tadhg was one of those and I gave a lot of the boys nicknames to help me remember their names pretty quickly.

“I called Tadhg ‘the Mayor of Wexford’ because he was this larger-than-life young man with a great confidence and fantastic presence about him. He was really comfortable in his own skin – everyone seemed to like him and be drawn to him.

“After each match I would give a couple of prizes, and I remember picking Tadhg as the tackler of the day for the third game running.

“I announced the winner as ‘the Mayor of Wexford’. Tadhg put his hand up and said, ‘Mike, please don’t call me the Mayor of Wexford any more’.

“I said. ‘I hope I have not upset you, Tadhg, what should I call you instead?’

“‘Just call me the Jukebox’, he said. ‘Why?’ I asked ‘Because the hits keep coming’, he said!”

The hits have kept coming ever since. In 2018, he missed just one of his 58 tackles for Ireland.

Tier One props in 2018
Metres made Defenders beaten
1. Tadhg Furlong (Ire) – 116m 1. Tadhg Furlong (Ire) – 14
2. Taniela Tupou (Aus) – 93m 2. Cian Healy (Ire) – 8
3. Kyle Sinckler (Eng) – 90m 3= Steven Kitshoff (SA) – 6
4. Karl Tuinukuafe (NZ) -77m 3=Taniela Tupou (Aus) – 6
5. Steven Kitshoff (SA) – 76m 5. Jefferson Poirot (Fra) – 5

According to Opta’s stats, he also made more metres (116m) and beat more defenders (14) than any other top-level international prop.

“He’s the complete player,” Ireland legend Paul O’Connell told BBC Sport.

“He’s happy to pass in the loose and is used off first-phase plays as the first receiver who can make passes.

“That’s the way it’s going now, there’s a massive emphasis on catch-pass in Irish rugby.

“He’s also a guy who is so good at his basic role of scrummaging, line-out ball, cleaning rucks, ball carrying. It’s great that a guy who has the basics nailed down is super fit and has very high standards in everything he does.”

It is those standards that will probably feature in Sinckler’s traditional post-game text to his old teacher from Graveney.

“It’s funny, even now he still calls me ‘Miss’,” Long says.

“He always texts back and is super-critical of his own performance, even in games when he has won man-of-the-match awards.

“He seems now more driven than ever.”

On Saturday, against Furlong and Ireland, he will have to be.

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