'Time for Toner to be a force'
Second-row legend O'Kelly backs beanpole lock to reach new heights and make light of Hines exit
MALCOLM O'KELLY knows a bit about making it as a beanpole second-row.
O'Kelly came through with St Mary's back in the pre-lifting days when giant second-rows like Martin Bayfield and Derwyn Jones were accommodated primarily for their line-out ability. At 6ft 8ins, O'Kelly was a noted exponent out of touch, but when lifting allowed shorter men greater opportunity to win ball, he had to widen his brief as professionalism eased out the skyscrapers in favour of mobile, multi-purpose locks who tended to measure in around the 6ft5ins mark.
That O'Kelly managed to do this successfully is emphasised by his 92 caps for Ireland and 183 appearances for his native province, and the two-time Lions tourist, who retired from rugby a couple of seasons ago, believes one of his successors at Leinster has the ability to embark on an equally productive international career.
Devin Toner is even taller than O'Kelly at 6ft 10ins and has been floating around the Leinster squad for the past four or five seasons, picking up three Ireland caps in the process, without ever nailing down a regular starting role next to captain Leo Cullen.
This season, with Nathan Hines gone to Clermont, O'Kelly believes it is time for Toner to kick on and says that with Damian Browne and Steven Sykes also on Leinster's books, he does not see any problems at second row for Leinster in the post-Hines era.
"This has to be a huge season for big Devin," said O'Kelly. "It is time for him to make his mark on the squad, be it coming on for Leo after 50 minutes or starting alongside Leo. Nathan Hines was exceptional and it was sad to see him go -- a great guy and a great player -- but Damian Browne is a really solid, hard-working player, perhaps not with the flair of Nathan but a good addition, and Steven Sykes is there as well.
"But it's very important now for Devin to step up. You look at Luke Charteris for Wales who was probably the form second-row at the World Cup, he has really come on and shown that you can be 6ft 10ins, 6ft 11ins and really effective.
"Devin has to use Charteris as a role model, whether he is there yet, he still has to prove but it shows that you can be a real force at that side."
O'Kelly is also expecting Jamie Heaslip to come to the fore as the season progresses, believing that the Lions No 8 should take on a more central role again, with Sean O'Brien garnering all the plaudits and attention in the Leinster and Ireland back-rows.
"It'll be really important for Jamie to reignite his performances," said O'Kelly. "The rise to power of the likes of Sean O'Brien in terms of ball-carrying has had an effect; Jamie is a different type of player, he plays more of a covering role, stealing ball on the ground, going wide, he plays a lot of different roles, taking on bad ball and so on.
"If I was giving Jamie advice it would be just to take more ball up -- what you want from a guy like him is yardage now because Sean O'Brien is going to be targeted with teams trying to mark him out of the game -- he certainly was against Wales.
"Jamie is a top player and it is the nature of the game, you always have to raise yourself and reach new standards and the likes of Seanie and Stephen Ferris have really raised the bar and Jamie is well capable of raising the bar again."
While accepting that the World Cup quarter-final defeat was "sickening" because he is convinced that Ireland would have beaten France in the semi-final, O'Kelly says there were a lot of positives to come out of the tournament and thinks the Heineken Cup is providing a welcome lift.
Leinster began their campaign to retain the title by battling back for a draw in Montpellier last weekend and O'Kelly believes, in the circumstances, it was an excellent result ahead of next weekend's home clash with Glasgow.
"It's very difficult to judge Leinster on the early part of the season because their squad was stretched to the limit during the World Cup," he said. "But they still found themselves up the table so in comparison to where they were this time last year, they are much more in touch.
"You could look at Montpellier and where they were at during the World Cup and suggest that maybe they are a team Leinster should be looking to beat. But the Heineken Cup always offers stiff challenges, especially away from home, and Montpellier showed last year how resilient they were, getting to the French final. The return of some of their key players rejuvenated them and for Leinster to snatch a last-minute draw was important because a loss would have been damaging.
"You can afford to lose the odd away match but, away from home, in the circumstances, a draw is a great result and now they can look to build on this as they head on into the competition."