IT DOESN’T COME as easy for tall men around the ruck.
At 6ft 10ins, Devin Toner wasn’t exactly built for barrelling through defenders in the post-tackle contest, despite his bulk of over 120kg.
But those gangly limbs have been mastered a little more by the former Castleknock man in recent seasons as he has gone from a player of promise at Leinster to an established member of Joe Schmidt’s hugely successful Ireland XV.
Toner and O’Connell have been Ireland’s lock pairing of choice in recent seasons. Source: Colm O’Neill/INPHO
Analysis of Ireland’s rucking efforts in the last two seasons usually shows Toner at somewhere around the 30 mark in terms of ruck involvements, although that figure naturally rises and falls depending on the nature of the specific game.
More importantly, Toner’s ruck contributions have been of a high quality as he blasts potential poachers away.
“I have been, over the last few years, working on a fair few drills,” says Toner of his rucking improvement. “I’d stay for five or 10 minutes after a session working on the bag, trying to get my body position really low.
“It is hard enough (for a tall player), and I do miss a few but it has improved. It’s one of the things you always keep working on.”
We’ve known all about Toner’s lineout skills since he began to break into Leinster’s set-up back in 2006, though his understanding, theory and calling of the set-piece have grown immeasurably since.
Playing alongside two elite second rows in Paul O’Connell and Leo Cullen has been hugely important to Toner’s progress into becoming the player he is now.
Toner during the win over Scotland last weekend. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
“There’s one, by the name of Paulie,” says Toner when asked who has influenced him most in the last number of seasons. “He’s been at the forefront of the world’s second rows for the last 10 years.
“I’ve learned a lot training with him over the last three years. When I was younger I’d have learned off Leo here (at Leinster) and it’s kind of the same, when I moved to Ireland Paul would have had a lot of influence over me.”
At the age of 29, Toner doesn’t require too much guidance at this stage, even if he strives to continue learning.
Schmidt has wholesome faith in the Leinster lock, Toner having started all but one of the 10 games in Ireland’s back-to-back Six Nations triumphs in the last two years. So what is it exactly that Schmidt asks of him in the engine room?
“During this summer series, all I’m focused on is winning primary possession. I’m expected to win lineout ball and then the basics of what a second-row is expected to do: get restarts right, ruck well, carry well, get the basics right.
“He doesn’t need a spectacular runner – obviously you have your skills like passing and things like that – but if I get my basics right and I get a barrel right at ruck time and carry well, then that’s the focus.”
The fact is that Toner continues to carry out his duties with a quiet but consistent excellence, meaning he has been able to hold the competition of Iain Henderson and Dan Tuohy at bay in the second row.
Toner with Leinster and Ireland teammates Jordi Murphy and Sean O’Brien. Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE
The return from injury of Donnacha Ryan adds another element to the pecking order however, and Toner recognises the need to maintain his form ahead of the World Cup.
“Donnacha’s a pretty aggressive player, he’s involved in everything,” says Toner. “He gets a huge tackle count and is just involved in everything.
“We call Rhys Ruddock the man child, but Iain’s a bit of a man child as well! He’s hugely strong, he’s really good at counter-rucking, he’s really good at rucking, getting low. Dan is a really good ball carrier, when he gets his hands on the ball and a good run-up he gets over the gainline a lot.
Toner will just keep the head down, claiming lineouts and restarts, ploughing into rucks, contributing to an effective maul and making his tackles.
He’s had to wait for his first World Cup experience and though he suggests there’s some doubt over whether or not he will travel, it looks certain Toner will play a central role for Schmidt’s Ireland.
“It means a huge amount,” says Toner. “The pinnacle of my career is playing for Ireland and then going to the World Cup. So yeah, if you’d said it to me four years ago that I’d be going to the next World Cup then I’d have bitten your hand off.
“If I’m selected to go, then I’d be delighted.”
Sonny Bill Williams in New Zealand 7s squad for Rio Olympics seasonCullen will have the backing of everyone as Leinster head coach – Toner