It’s the attention to the little things that has made Devin Toner such a big hit.
Ireland may have won 18 out of 20 lineouts against New Zealand last week, but the pair that the All Blacks stole were the ones Toner focused on this week ahead of today’s clash with Australia at Lansdowne Road.
The 6’10” second row has long been seen as an overnight success, years in the making.
But he’s been a key component of Joe Schmidt’s side since breaking into the Ireland team proper in 2014 – four years after making his debut.
Like many Irish second rows, Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan stood in the Meathman’s road for a while, and Leo Cullen, Donnacha Ryan and then Iain Henderson, did their best to block his path to the green shirt.
Toner had just ten caps heading into the 2014 Six Nations but Schmidt’s appointment months earlier marked a watershed, and he’s set to earn his 42nd cap today.
“Yeah, it is pretty satisfying,” Toner said, when asked how it felt to play so well at 30, before making an important caveat; “I don’t think I’m as good as I can be. There are loads of things you see that you can be better at.
“So, it is satisfying that we’re playing well as a team and that I’m doing alright, but there is a fair bit to go.” Toner believes his improvement has come largely thanks to playing more regularly, and the Leinster lock looks more at home than ever before.
“The more you play, the more years you have under your belt, the more you get embedded in a team, the more confident you get,” he said.
“You hear it said the whole time from second rows, you get better with age. I feel better in myself, more confident in myself, more confident in the way I’m playing.
“It kind of feels good getting around the pitch.” He carried in the loose a lot more last weekend, something many might not expect from the 6’10” lock, but a role he enjoys.
“I always like getting my hands on the ball, I enjoy getting a touch here and getting the passes in,” he said.
“It’s one of the things that Joe preaches, that everyone should be able to get their hands on the ball.
“It’s an All Black or Kiwi philosophy that everyone should be able to pass, to do it.”
Toner made the second highest number of tackles last week, with nine, but believes he can still get even better.
“You learn how to use your body,” he said. “When I was younger, I was staying too high in the tackle. People were able to get under you and dominate you. I was on the end of a few spear tackles when I was 20-years-old. You learn as you go on, how to go into contact low and how to dominate, how to use your weight.” Does being almost seven foot tall get him off the hook from Joe?
“Leeway? God no, you don’t get any leeway from Joe,” he smiled, revealing the extra hours spent after training thumping tackle bags. “You need to do the best you can. I’m obviously there because of my height. There’s no bones about it.”
Can Toner improve on last week’s showing? It’s a tall order, but he’s up for the challenge.
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