Thursday 26 April 2018

Toner's giant leap can give Ireland's line-out major lift

Leinster lock Devin Toner will be eager to show he has more to his armoury than just sheer height when he makes his debut for Ireland on Saturday.
Leinster lock Devin Toner will be eager to show he has more to his armoury than just sheer height when he makes his debut for Ireland on Saturday.
David Kelly

David Kelly

All systems grow for Ireland, then. Devin Toner walks into the room, his 6' 10" frame making the rest of us appear positively Lilliputian in comparison. He is, as he gleefully testifies, "over the moon."

In his case, the cliché almost literally applies.

This is the man who has been assigned the responsibility to arrest the appalling systems failure that was Ireland's line-out shambles of last weekend, as he will organise the set-piece in his first ever international.

No better man for such a tall order. "It's the same pitch, playing 15 guys, the same game," he says languidly. "I'll do exactly what I did for Leinster, the same preparation and going through the same processes that have brought me to this point."

The 24-year-old seems so laid-back, he's almost horizontal, which would take up even more space, so he remains contented with his frame folded inelegantly into an ill-fitting chair.

Toner's might is his height, but that alone will not cut it at this level of rugby. Crucially, he has filled out his frame in recent years to a substantial enough 120kg -- five Weetabix a morning, kids.

The problems of typecasting were obvious; sure, he can pluck a ball from the sky, but the sport demands much more. His scrummaging has improved -- still work to do -- and he has toiled hard on his work-rate and ability to hit rucks effectively. And low.

He has had to stoop to conquer. "Getting down low is the biggest challenge," he admits.

It's a challenge he's relished for more than a decade. Along with his older brother Daragh, Toner had been introduced to the game by his parents -- Peter, a Louth man from Carlingford and Anne, from Kilcock in Meath -- as a 10-year-old.

Playing mini-rugby must have seemed strange for the emerging beanpole, but his folks maintained his interest in the game by sending him to Castleknock College, where he would fall under -- just about -- the inestimable influences of the Quinn brothers, Mick and particularly forwards coach Charlie.


From his first year, his commitment was evident and his graduation towards the professional ranks was inevitable in his later teens, joining the Leinster Academy while studying Sports Management.

Along the way, he would combine with a promising young hooker called Sean Cronin and the pair would share several Ireland U-21 caps before toiling successfully en route to the 2009 Churchill Cup success.

The easier the target, the more enthusiastic the throwing partner as Cronin avers, stressing that he feels Toner can handle the responsibility of calling the line-outs.

"I've been around Dev a long time," enthused Cronin, ignored from the bench last week as the line-out crumbled like a freshly baked scone. "If we can get the lifts right and everything spot on, it's a dream to be throwing to and I'm looking forward to it.

"If you look down through the pack that's starting, you have some good jumpers there as well in different areas of the line-out, you've Donncha O'Callaghan and Jamie Heaslip is a top-quality line-out operator as well.

"There are options there and Devin can maybe use those to his advantage. If they put extra defence on him, he can shift other areas of the line-out. That's up to him to call.

"He might be confident enough that we're going to win it on him every time. You don't know until you're in a game situation. I'd say he's relishing this opportunity, it's his first cap and it's going to be massive for him. We just have to get things right."

The pressure, all seem to agree, won't faze Toner. "Devin's a top man," says Charlie Quinn.

"He has all the armoury and the right attitude."

That attitude will require him to bellow and bark at such established figures as John Hayes and his occasional Leinster captain Heaslip.

"He's like any other good second-row caller," says Cronin. "He's been doing the Leinster line-out and it's been going very well any time he has stepped in there. He just stamps his authority, he knows what he wants."

A week behind schedule, perhaps, he gets his chance. Even if the distance doesn't require that giant of a leap.

Irish Independent

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