Devin Toner arrived in South Africa under the darkest of clouds following the death of his father, but there was never any question of the lock missing a shot at Irish rugby history.
A week in and a fortnight after Peter Toner passed away, with that place in the annals secured thanks to an epic first Test win at Newlands last Saturday, the second row had the perfect platform to emerge into a little sunshine. As he collected his man of the match award and completed his obligatory on-field television interview, the second row pointed to the skies above and said: “I just want to say, this is for you Dad.”
His family had given him little choice but to travel with Joe Schmidt’s squad to Cape Town and the decision to press on made more sense as kick-off approached last weekend.
“It happened a week before we were due to leave and the whole family were saying: ‘You’re definitely still going,’ so I didn’t really have an option, to be honest. They were telling me I was going.
“Then, it was hard for me to get my head around it at the start, getting back into things and then at the start of the week, I wasn’t feeling great but as we started getting closer to the Test match, it kind of clicked that this was obviously a massive Test match, with history to be made. It was there for us, so I kind of got my head around it and started getting up for it. The longer the week went on, the closer we got to the game, the more I got into it.”
Toner, who turns 30 on June 29, and gets married to Mary Scott two days later, has been grateful for the support he has received from his rugby family on tour in Cape Town and now Johannesburg ahead of Saturday’s second Test at Ellis Park.
“Yeah, 100%, it’s great. It was actually good to have a distraction. You had to come straight into camp and get your head around calls. Obviously with so many lads around, you’re talking and it’s a bit of a distraction. But all the lads were so supportive. They were all down at the funeral as well.”
There is plenty to distract Toner and his teammates this week as they prepare for the expected fightback from the Springboks. That said, the psychological boost they gained from beating them at Newlands with only 14 men for 57 of the 80 minutes, 10 of those with just 13 players, will ensure they go to Ellis Park with the belief that a series win is within reach.
Those moments of steadfastness under pressure with CJ Stander sent off and Robbie Henshaw in the bin as the Boks laid siege to the Irish 22 were a massive positive for Toner as Ireland began life under new defence coach Andy Farrell.
“I think everyone dug deep and did what they had to do. At a scrum meeting yesterday, Feeky asked, ‘what was the first thing in your head when CJ went off’? It was a scrum meeting, so everyone was thinking of scrums, so (we said) ‘Who’s going to come in on the flank?’ I was thinking of the lineout! ‘Who’s going to be in the six-man or five-man? What are we doing here?’
“We had to shorten the lineout and it affects your lineout defence as well, so we had to get our head around that as well but thankfully it worked out.
“I think one of the hugely positive things to come out of the weekend was our defence. Going down to 13 for 10 minutes and then that second half. Obviously to let in an intercept try wasn’t great but if we hadn’t let that in, it would have been an even more impressive result to be honest.
“I think Faz (Farrell) has done a great job with us on defence this week. We’re really up for it. We want to get off the line. We want to be enthusiastic. We want to do well for him: a new coach, coming in. We want to do right by him.”
With an 89% tackle completion rate, Toner said Farrell was “pretty happy” with the 14-man effort but the Ireland forward knows it is going to take a better performance again to overturn the hurting Springboks and convert a one-off win into another piece of history.
“Before the tour, one win would’ve been enough but now we’re really going after it. We have the bit between our teeth. It would be unbelievable if we did it. It’s going to be a huge challenge. We always knew it was possible, and we’re going to do everything we can to do it.”
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