Saturday 10 December 2016

Toner: Bath's England players will be hurting

Marcus Ó Buachalla

Published 03/04/2015 | 02:30

Devin Toner
Devin Toner
Devin Toner returns to Leinster after a successful Six Nations campaign with Ireland (SPORTSFILE)
Devin Toner in action for Leinster

It is nearly a month to the day since Devin Toner last stared down an English team in the Aviva Stadium. In early March, it was the national side that came knocking and after a gripping encounter, Ireland won by 10 points.

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Plenty of water has flowed under the bridge since then, however, as Ireland secured back-to-back Six Nations titles on a dramatic last day of the Championship.

And it was the English that had every Ireland fan on tenterhooks as Stuart Lancaster's men threatened to deny Joe Schmidt's team on points difference in their helter-skelter clash with France.

Now into April, Englishmen are back and are still occupying our thoughts - tomorrow Bath come to town. Familiar foes for Toner.

"There is a fair bit of familiarity alright and that's a good thing I suppose in that we have seen a lot of the Bath players in action and would have studied them before they were even on the Leinster radar," he says.

"We were glued to our TVs as they went about beating the French and chasing our score!

"But familiarity can also breed contempt and they will be hurting after that loss in the Aviva the last time."

Emotion

Surely in the ultra-competitive and ultra-professional world of the Champions Cup, there isn't room for such emotion? Not so.

"It's two different teams and two different competitions but you can't escape that human element either and the want to put things right or to settle a score," explains Toner.

"It's how you control those emotions and how you channel that energy in the right way, and I'm sure they will try to do just that."

Bath are led off the pitch by former Ireland defence coach Mike Ford and led on the pitch by his son George. Toner didn't come across Ford senior during his time with Ireland but is impressed by what he has seen from his team and from his young lad.

"Ford, for a young player, has really taken to the role as first-choice 10 at England," he says. "A few months ago Owen Farrell was the one everyone was talking about so he has come in under the radar and grabbed his chance with both hands.

"The same with the rest of the lads. (Jonathan) Joseph, (Anthony) Watson, (Kyle) Eastmond. Lads that wouldn't really have been well known, but a few injuries open up doors and they have brought their club form with them into an English shirt.

"Bath slipped up a bit recently in the Premiership with the lads away but before that they had been very good and had been top of the league I think.

"Plus they bounced back from two losses in the Champions Cup to top their pool. So they are very much here on merit and you just feel that they are in a better place now than ever with lads coming into the squad for them walking tall."

To be fair, Leinster also welcome back a few lads who shouldn't be short on confidence either after a first back-to back Six Nations title in 66 years.

"Yeah everyone is in good spirits. Of course it is tricky coming in, and in particular not having a run-out before a game of this nature but it's the cards that we've been dealt this year with the change in the calendar," says Toner.

"So for the first few days you're like a book-worm trying to study patterns and memorise calls and make sure that you are ready to go on the training pitch.

"Thankfully the few days we had down in Wicklow has really helped to focus the minds and I think we're all up to speed now mentally."

Last year Toner remarked that it was all very new, returning to the Leinster set-up on the back of being away for eight weeks. This year it's the norm.

He is a leader on the pitch for Ireland and for Leinster, and off the pitch he has been taking on leadership roles like his ambassadorial work with Enactus Ireland, that has him as a mentor for students. He's enjoying it.

"It's been a big 24 months for me. In previous Six Nations campaigns I had played a part but had also been released back to Leinster during the campaign so I was tapping away, with an eye on both camps," he says.

"Last year was the first time that I was involved for all of the five games so it was the first time coming in off the back of a campaign having been really out of the loop for eight weeks.

"I was then rested for the Zebre game, then started against Munster in the Aviva before we faced Toulon. This year we have lost that comfort of the Munster game in the build-up and we're straight into it against Bath."

The aforementioned 66 years may seem like a lifetime away but it was quite tangible to those that were tasked with emulating the achievement. Toner is quick to downplay its significance but at the same time, every little helps.

"Coming into this year's Six Nations we were aware of a number of things. We were defending champions for a start, and we are all aware of how difficult that can be, and managing expectations off the back of a successful autumn as well," he says.

Enormity

"But as we got closer to that Scotland game and the enormity of the task came into view - in particular after losing to Wales the previous weekend and the score that we then had to chase - we started looking at other elements to the game and one such element was how long it had been since an Irish team had won back-to-back titles.

"66 years is a long time and the opportunity for this group of players to achieve a little piece of history was a nice carrot to aim for. You'd be mindful of the great teams that have gone before, and to be able to emulate those achievements is nice but ultimately it was about us as a group doing it for ourselves and for the clubs and the supporters we represent."

That task of emulating previous teams comes with a very Leinster feel this time around: a chance for this group of players and management to reach a first European semi-final.

"There is a huge focus. It is all on the line now for us. The pressure on us all to perform is right there and will be for the foreseeable future. But first up is Saturday. A huge task but one that we are ready for," he says.

Irish Independent

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