DONAL LENIHAN: Devin Toner: Stooping to conquer

All great players have presence. The mere fact they share a dressing room offers confidence and surety to everyone in close proximity.

For different reasons Devin Toner has enjoyed a presence that is hard to miss. The first time I came across him, doing a pre-match television interview on the sideline of a Leinster Pro 12 game at the RDS a few years ago, I remember feeling very small.

That is not an everyday occurrence for a former international second row but, despite taking on a few pretty sizeable opponents myself, I never felt so minute. He really is monstrous. At 6’11” and weighing in at over 19st he is, by a stretch if you’ll pardon the pun, the biggest man to ever play rugby for Ireland.

There were those who even put forward the argument, when he set on on his journey with Leinster, that he was too big to be really effective. I never bought into that argument and while it is fair to say that it has taken Toner time to make best use of his natural physical attributes, he has always proved a handful to deal with.

From the time match programmes came into being, second row forwards flick through the pages in the privacy of their dressing room and run a cursory glance over the physical dimensions of their opposite number.

In that respect Toner has always managed to capture the attention of his immediate opponent and managed to instil a degree of discomfort ever before kick off.

Opposition hookers have also endured a few sleepless nights as they contemplate the challenge in trying to negotiate an accurate throw given an opponent just short of 7 ft will be launched that distance again into the air in order to disrupt his delivery.

While his height has always offered an obvious advantage come lineout time, it can prove a disadvantage in other aspects of the game. Unless you get your body height right in contact, it provides a big target of any technically proficient opponent in the tackle.

Toner struggled as a ball carrier for a long period due to this but has become significantly better in recent seasons.

From a scrummaging perspective, being so long can also be a disadvantage, especially if you fail to drop your backside and create a straight back. It is vital that you get your feet in the right position. Otherwise you can become a liability. Toner has also mastered that and offers serious bulk in support of his front row.

Now 30 years of age, he is fast approaching his peak after serving a long apprenticeship in the company of some of the most effective second rows to ever play the game. In that respect he has been extremely lucky.

While learning his trade in the Leinster academy he would have come into daily contact with Malcolm O’Kelly, a great athlete and a very accomplished line out operator. O’Kelly’s second row partner when Leinster finally won the Heineken Cup for the first time against Leicester Tigers in Murrayfield was their captain Leo Cullen, who himself learned so much from England’s World Cup winning locking partnership, Martin Johnson and Ben Kay, during his time in Leicester.

In subsequent seasons, Toner would share locking duties in Leinster colours with Cullen, New Zealand’s World Cup winning lock Brad Thorn and the equally effective Scottish and Lions lock Nathan Hines. When he eventually graduated to the international ranks, he had one Paul O’Connell by his side. If you were to handpick a cross-section of players to learn your trade from, you couldn’t have hand-picked a more influential bunch.

Having operated in the shadow of all those players for long periods of time, Toner has now emerged as the leading light in Ireland’s second row and is well on track to make what is possibly the most competitive area when it comes to Lions selection post Six Nations. On current form he would be an automatic choice for me.

Not only is he one of the most effective line out operators in the game but has also learned from O’Connell when it comes to analysing the opposition set piece and become a very effective leader and caller of Ireland’s strategy out of touch.

His aerial ability at restarts is top class but it is his long levers from the base of the ruck that has served to put huge pressure on the opposition scrum half. Look at the regularity with which Toner’s long arms are attempting to block or impede the scrum-half while executing a box kick. His sheer size forces the scrum half to adjust his kicking trajectory in order not to be blocked down and that impacts on the accuracy of the kick for the chasers.

Perhaps it is in broken play however that Toner has made the biggest strides. So much more is expected of the modern day second-row, not least with ball in hand. All Black Brodie Retallick has redefined the role somewhat when acting as a pivot in broken play and Toner now performs a similar role for Ireland. He is comfortable either carrying into contact, effecting a short pop pass to a forward at pace or passing out the back door to feed a second line of attack.

Since O’Connell’s retirement, Toner has taken ownership of the Irish second row and whether operating in tandem with Donnacha Ryan, Iain Henderson or Ultan Dillane is the senior man. Ireland are well served.

Significantly while that trio have all suffered from untimely injuries in recent times, the big Leinster man has proved indestructible and played a significant role in those historic wins over South Africa, New Zealand and Australia over the last eight months.

Toner has also shown admirable grit and steel in adversity. For me, one of his most significant performances in a green shirt was in that memorable victory over the Springboks in Cape Town last June when Ireland played sixty minutes of that game with only seven forwards after the dismissal of CJ Stander.

Against what is always a gargantuan South African pack, that would normally prove a challenge too far but due in no small measure to an outstanding performance from Toner - who was deservedly named man of the match by the host broadcaster - Ireland recorded a famous victory in the most demanding of circumstances.

Toner’s effort in outplaying the highly rated Springbok pairing of Eben Etzebeth and Lood De Jäger was even more significant given that his dad, Peter, had passed away unexpectedly in his sleep only 16 days earlier.

An ever present source of support and encouragement to Devin since his earliest days in the sport, it must have been very difficult to get his head around even playing. His finest moment to that point must also have been his most poignant, yet he still had the composure and class, on receiving his man of the match award, to point to the heavens and declare ‘this one is for you dad.’

If Ireland go on to win a third Six Nations championship in four years over the next two months, you can be sure Devin Toner will have played a major role in making that happen, one that will surely see him spend a significant portion of next summer in New Zealand.

Toner, who wins his 43rd cap in Edinburgh tomorrow, has stood out for obvious reasons from his fledgling days in a Leinster schools jersey but what he brings now to this Irish squad is real presence, the type that impacts on all those around him.

His former peers, including Hines who now coaches the Scottish forwards, will have reason to be proud of the finished product that now leads the way in Ireland’s engine room.

Their job is done.

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