Saturday 14 December 2019

Toner stands tall to fill void left by O'Connell

Devin Toner (SPORTSFILE)
Devin Toner (SPORTSFILE)
David Kelly

David Kelly

Irish supporters surely won't be asking too much for the almost 6' 10" (and a bit) Devin Toner to stand tall this Sunday.

In an Irish rugby landscape without Paul O'Connell's imposing presence, Toner will now be charged with leading Ireland's aerial battle from touch and imposing himself in the trenches further infield.

There will be many voices swirling around the Meath man's head. From some suspicious supporters who doubt whether he can prove capable of filling some of the vast void bequeathed by the former Limerick colossus.

And then there will be the nagging entreaties from Alun Wyn Jones in a red shirt, goading him at every lineout, questioning his calls, seeking weakness in his every judgement.

Louder than any, he is utterly certain, will be the clearest voice of them all: his own; persistently engaging the positive mental attributes that will equip him for one of his sternest challenges ever, particularly amongst a tight five denuded of so much experience and heft.

"Obviously there's a lot being said about Paulie being gone and that there's a few people that need to stand up and take leadership," says Toner, already visibly assuming the mantle that has afforded him more responsibility in green than at any time before in his 31-Test, five-year Irish career.


At 29, he can no longer hide his light beneath a bushel.

"I pretty much knew coming in I'd need to take a lot more on myself. Leadership-wise. Line-out wise. I needed to take a lot more onus that way.

"I suppose in the actual game, not too much. All you need to do if you're calling the lineout is to keep calm and keep your head.

"I have a fair bit of experience going into this campaign now, calling lineouts, and having that onus.

"So I'm not looking to change too much, but, again, just try to get more involved in the game and take on more leadership.

"It is exciting. If it didn't excite you then you'd be in the wrong game, to be honest.

"It's a challenge as well, but as professional players that's what you want to play for. You want to play for these big challenges.

"It will lead me to be being more vocal. But, again, specifically around lineout time.

"We do have a lot of leaders around the pitch so I wouldn't be speaking up too much because a lot of people would be talking all over the place then.

"If you had too many people talking up, it would detract from it. I'm probably sticking to what I know, basically."

He called the lineout on his Ireland debut all those years ago against Samoa but, if it can be said of someone who scales 6' 11" in some pen pics, he flew beneath the radar.

But he does so for Leinster, too, and so is more than prepared for the wiles of Jones.

"Sometimes you can get in their heads, or they in yours, some times it is a bit different.

"I know Alan Wyn tries to get into your head, he loves talking and chatting. But a lot of the time, I don't even listen to it to be honest.

"I have a call in my head, that's what I want to do and where I want to go. I'm just going to go for it, back myself and back the call.

"They try to get into your head but it is up to you to block it out. He'll say, 'I know what you are going to do, you're going to go to the front aren't you?' It's little things."

Despite being without two first-choice props, defensive lineout specialist Peter O'Mahony and, of course, O'Connell, Ireland have little doubt they can assuage public fears that the Welsh eight can hold sway from touch and in tight.

"Devin and Donncha Ryan both call lineouts for their respective provinces, so it's not an issue as far as I'm concerned," demurs assistant coach Simon Easterby.

"Yes, Test match rugby is different but if Paulie's gone off, Donners (Donncha O'Callaghan) or Dev (Toner) have stepped up anyway to call when they're playing.

"So I don't see that as an issue; they thrive on that responsibility. It's a test for us in the lineout and scrum in particular."

The lineout caller normally dominates possession; a skyscraper like Toner would expect to but the only stat that matters to him is the final scoreline as Ireland begin another life beyond another legend.

"Inevitably, whoever is calling the lineout will get more of the lineout stats to be honest. It's no secret that when I play with Leinster, I get a lot of the ball as well.

"It's fair to say there is more pressure on me now than in previous years but I am enjoying it.

"As long as we win our own ball, I don't care whether I get it or not to be honest. As long as we win, I don't care."

Who is your sportstar of the year?

Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.

Prizes include, tickets to Ireland's against Scotland in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.

Simply click here to register your vote

Indo Sport

The Left Wing: John Cooney on Ulster's European run and bouncing back from World Cup disappointment

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport