Devin Toner getting used to increased role in spotlight
AT SIX feet and 11 inches tall, it’s strange to think of Devin Toner lurking in anyone’s shadow.
But he has always been the lesser light of Ireland’s second row. Anyone in any era would have struggled to wrestle Paul O’Connell from the limelight. In a period of such success for Irish rugby, though, it proved particularly difficult.
Six years on the squad, it was 2013 before he established himself as O’Connell’s regular partner. The fact the Munster legend was the one calling the lineouts and the one making the memorable dressing room speeches meant Toner naturally took the background.
The big Leinster man hasn’t really been perturbed by the loss though. He is confident that he, and others, can step up to fill the void: “Ye are the only ones talking about Paulie to be honest. We're not at all," Toner said.
“So there is a lot of confidence. The amount of brilliant players who are not involved in the squad, there is a lot of strength in depth, there are always lads coming in and out. So we have a lot of confidence in our squad. There are a lot of other leaders standing up and taking control of training sessions and taking control of everything. So it is an exciting time.”
It’s Toner who will take control of the lineout from here on. Donnacha Ryan is set to partner Toner in Sunday’s Six Nations opener against Wales - though Iain Henderson is in line once he recovers from a season-ending hamstring injury. Long-term, it looks more likely to be the Ulster man, who was given the nod for last year’s World Cup quarter-final defeat by Argentina.
Toner, though, takes on a big mantle in more ways than one. Ireland’s lineout was the most successful in last year’s Six Nations, winning 93 per cent of its own ball. With O’Connell having called them in the past - and, by consequence, taken most of the ball - the 29-year-old is looking forward to taking on the responsibility.
“Inevitably, whoever is calling the lineout will get more of the lineout stats to be honest," he said.
"It's no secret that, when I play with Leinster, I get a lot of the ball as well. It is exciting and a challenge I am looking forward to. It's fair to say there is more pressure on me now than in previous years but I am enjoying it to be honest. 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 it, I don't care.”
Last year’s triumphant Six Nations campaign was built on that solid foundation of their own set piece. They managed to win 15 per cent of the opposition’s lineout ball over the five games and Toner believes Ireland put sufficient pressure on.
“You don't always have to steal it to disrupt it, to be honest. You can disrupt how they distribute the ball. If we can mess up their maul or their delivery of the ball, I think that is putting pressure on," he said.
“As long as we are getting pressure on every lineout, I think we can see that as a positive.”
The Welsh lineout wasn’t one that they enjoyed particular success against last year, though. Indeed, the opposite was true as Luke Charteris and Alun Wyn Jones disrupted the Irish to great effect in their 23-16 victory in Cardiff.
Toner revealed Jones was particularly effective, in more ways than one: “Sometimes you can get in their heads, sometimes it is a bit different. I know Alan Wyn tries to get into your head, he loves talking and chatting," he said.
“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.”
The early breakdown in the Millennium Stadium last year destroyed Ireland’s Grand Slam hopes. The concession of four penalties, all of which Dan Biggar converted in the opening 12 minutes, left Joe Schmidt’s side a mountain to climb.
“Getting on top of that first 20 minutes is huge and not letting them get that head start. For us, one of the biggest things is discipline and not giving away stupid penalties, not doing stupid stuff.”