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Toner: I'm not saying lads were scared of Cheika but he demands respect

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Devin Toner is grateful for Michael Cheika's 'tough love' approach that set him on his way with Leinster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE

Devin Toner is grateful for Michael Cheika's 'tough love' approach that set him on his way with Leinster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Devin Toner is grateful for Michael Cheika's 'tough love' approach that set him on his way with Leinster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE

As Devin Toner settles his 6ft 11in frame into a chair at Ireland's base, there is a distinctly more relaxed nature about his demeanour, just as as in the way in which he addresses the small group of scribes.

The towering second-row has never been totally at ease speaking with the media but then again, he is in second year as a seasoned international, so why shouldn't he feel more at home in the now familiar surroundings of Carton House?

At 28, Toner may have been a late bloomer but he is certainly making up for lost time. As his mind drifts back to his early days at Leinster, he recalls the influence that Michael Cheika had on his career.

Cheika had just taken over as head coach in May 2005 but it wasn't until eight months later that he handed Toner his senior debut, against Border Reivers.

As a 19-year-old, the former Castleknock College pupil had just graduated from the Leinster academy and after acknowledging that he struggled to get to the grips with the physicality required at the top level, the conversation takes an immediate turn to Cheika's infamous "tough love" approach.

No-Nonsense

The Australian's no-nonsense approach shaped the careers of many players, and Toner is no different.

"As a young player, it's 100pc what he had for you, tough love," Toner explains with a wry smile.

"I'm not saying lads were scared of him but he's a coach that demands respect and as a young lad you'd respect him hugely. When you're young and going in, it's a hard place to go when you do have a coach like that, you know you don't want to mess up.

"I have a huge amount of respect for him. He's been a really successful coach with Leinster, and in Australia.

"He really drives on the discipline and everything in the squad. It's been well documented how he turned Leinster around and got them back on track.

"His character is quite hard-edged, but he knows his stuff as well."

Cheika led Leinster to their first Heineken Cup title in 2009, setting the platform for Joe Schmidt to bring the province to the next level and dominate Europe, and Toner hasn't forgotten the debt he owes the new Wallabies coach.

"He is the coach that brought me out of the Academy and gave me my first professional contract, so yeah," Toner replied when asked if there was a sense of gratitude on his part.

"It's not like he was waiting for me to get good. He gave me my chance, he kinda threw me in at the deep end. It was sink or swim.

"Mike Brewer, the forwards coach, and Cheika were kind of saying that I basically needed to get more physical. You'd go through video sessions with them saying, 'right, you could have done this or you could have done that'.

"One of the massive things is that he drills the discipline in the squad, being disciplined in everything you do, being on time, your dress code. These are things that he brought into the squad. He commands respect."

The parallels with Schmidt are clear but come Saturday evening, the latter's protégés will be the plotting the downfall of one of the most influential coaches to have landed on this island.

Last year's 32-15 defeat to the Wallabies condemned Schmidt to his first loss as Ireland coach but Toner was quick to point to the main reason why Ireland faltered so badly that night at the Aviva Stadium.

"We were very focused on the plays that we were doing and the detail that we had to do. We just didn't front up," he revealed.

"It was the first game that we didn't, and we got caught off guard. We didn't bring the emotional side to it, which we needed to. We need to bring that this week.

"I think a lot of lads were still getting used to Joe's system and how it works. They didn't want to mess up and not get the detail right so I think a lot of lads were focused on that and let the other stuff fall by the wayside.

"But I think we have our heads screwed on now and we know that we can't do that against Australia."

Having admitted after Leinster's win over Castres in the Champions Cup that he had yet to establish last season's form that saw him become a key figure in Schmidt's plans, Toner's performances since and in particular, against South Africa, have been now much more closer to those exalted standards.

Cheika and his Wallabies side arrive in Dublin after a thrilling but laboured defeat in Paris last Saturday; the new coach has yet to really put his own stamp on the team, and Toner is confident that Ireland can exploit that transition in a similar manner to how the Australians undid Schmidt's side last year.

"After that performance against South Africa, there's no point coming out and falling by the wayside against Australia. That's what our focus is - to reach that standard again," he said.

It's not just Ireland's standards that have been set going forward but Toner's have as well.

Now more relaxed on the international stage, he has come a long way since Cheika's 'sink or swim' days.

Irish Independent