Sunday 22 September 2019

David Kelly: 'Whatever about the moral implications, this is a momentous decision by Joe Schmidt'

Devin Toner is not in Ireland's World Cup squad
Devin Toner is not in Ireland's World Cup squad

David kelly

The tall guy becomes the fall guy. Casualties don't come much bigger than Devin Toner and, at a vertiginous 6' 11”, the crashing descent will have been a painful one.

And so the summer fretting about the potentially shock exclusion of a lineout legend was justified after all.

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Except when the 31-man squad list was embarrassingly leaked this morning, it wasn't the name many might have wrongfully suspected was in danger; captain Rory Best was never likely to be missing out.

However, while the captain – amongst others - may have continued to benefit  from a considerable bank of experience, Toner has not been so fortunate.

This may not be the end of the Meath man's international career but the stinging sense of numbness that he is experiencing today will almost make it feel like it is.

He might not have seen this day coming but Joe Schmidt has arguably been planning for it for the last three years.

Jean Kleyn is the chief beneficiary of Toner's absence; the South African was recruited to the Irish cause after the last World Cup and Schmidt has eyed this role for the Munster player from a long time out.

That will rankle with some who rail against the hypocrisy of the IRFU recruiting overseas players to represent Ireland when this is an opportunity denied Irish players who earn their living abroad.

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Whatever about the moral implications, even in purely rugby terms, this is a momentous decision by Schmidt but he clearly feels that, following his ankle operation and a fitful campaign, Toner is slipping down the other side of the hill.

Given the difficulties in drafting potential injury replacements – Schmidt has already said he would prefer a larger squad - the Leinster man must be unfit for the rigours necessary for the extensive expedition on the hard, fast tracks in Japan.

But with neither player nor coach expressing such a doubt, albeit Schmidt did mention a "niggle" last month, it must be assumed that this is a choice predicated upon ability, not fitness.

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If fitness were a real live issue, Jonathan Sexton, for example, wouldn't be getting on the plane.

Thus ends the professional relationship between Toner and Schmidt's, which began with the arrival of the Kiwi in this country to propel Leinster, and then Ireland, to unprecedented heights.

Nobody reached higher than the shy-scraping Toner, succeeding Paul O'Connell as the script-writer of the Irish lineout, the set-piece which formed the bed-rock of Ireland's formidable game-plan for much of Schmidt's reign.

However, when Schmidt benched him against England in the 2017 championships, halting a run of 17 straight starts, that was the first indication that the safest pair of hands in Irish rugby were losing its grip on automatic selection.

That he managed to wriggle his way back into contention – thanks to Iain Henderson's struggle to maintain a convincing run of consistently high levels of international performance – was a tribute to his resilience.

However, with Kleyn earmarked by Schmidt for a place in Japan, and Tadhg Beirne's ascension last summer as an option covering the back five, Toner's anxiety level would have spiked as he navigated last season with occasional difficulty.

After brief flirtations in recent times, Ultan Dillane and Quinn Roux; the latter a less formidable but similar styled player to Kleyn, and hence a more favoured option for Schmidt, never seemed to be in the conversation.

For many, the choice may be distilled into a simple one – Toner versus Kleyn. And that grates with many.

A home-grown player losing out to one who forged a career in one country before making a professional decision to pursue it in another.

Toner's absence also has other implications, namely the captain's fitful form. Toner has so often been a comfort blanket, not only for his team to secure possession, but also for Best to re-discover his throwing mojo.

James Ryan will now assume the role of lineout commander and the future captain of Ireland is supremely capable.

And yet, even if it may seem Kleyn might only prove to be an option for the games against Russia and Samao, to alleviate the work-rate of those ahead of him in the pecking order, it seems jarring that Toner was not deemed adequate enough even for this limited role.

Schmidt has opted for brute power and the younger option. After a long period when so many were questioning whether the coach could make a significant selection call, he definitely did so today.

It's just not the one that many would have guessed.

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