Toner tuned in to tackling task of lineout leader
Leinster secondrow relishing the challenge of facing up to Munster’s Paul O’Connell
Leinster’s Devin Toner is looking forward to renewing battle with Donnacha Ryan and Paul O’Connell at Munster’s Thomond Park on Saturday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
It may wander a little from the bright lights and Broadway glitz to consider a secondrow duel that may light up Thomond Park on Saturday. Four giant locks butting heads as a narrative sounds like the desperate script writer trying to convince a producer that the story of Watson and Crick discovering the double helix model of DNA is gripping or the introspection of Franz Kafka box office.
But some clever Springbok player not so long ago noted “God gave me talent, the forwards give me the ball”, and those words apply as Leinster’s secondrow Devin Toner prepares to face Paul O’Connell and goodness knows who else, Donnacha Ryan, Donncha O’Callaghan Dave Foley, Ian Nagle, Billy Holland . . .
Cameos often make matches and influence outcomes and O’Connell’s entry to the domestic game in the second half of Munster’s win over Newport on Saturday was nicely timed.
It’s a Munster team progression that could not escape Toner, who self-effacingly remarked that at the start of every season he comes out and says it is the most important season he’s ever played.
“I seem to be saying it every year,” he said yesterday. “This year is the most important season for me. I’ve said it again.”
For this week he could replace “season” with “match” as Leinster coach Matt O’Connor will field his strongest team for the first time. Toner, for all his public reticence, should expect to be there and face the iconic secondrow.
“It is good news,” he says, tempering respect with a hint of “bring it on”. “Both teams will be looking to field their strongest teams going into the Heineken Cup in the next two weeks. I am looking forward to it. If Paul plays, it will be a great challenge. I love playing against him. Going up against the best in the world is always good for your career.
“Any time Paul comes back, you can see his leadership shines on the pitch. They really look up to him when he’s playing. He brings a lot . . . I suppose just his experience. From a personal point of view, the lineout probably. He’s great in D [defence] getting up and stealing ball and disrupting ball.”
Half an hour of pitch time is slim and O’Connell’s eye, well adjusted to the wider significance of winning in the cathedral against neighbours who have outstripped them in recent years, will see Europe and the November series as bigger prizes. For Toner also, and he knows where Joe Schmidt will be. First impressions are often like Usain Bolt making the first five yards in the 100 metres. There’s no catching him.
The 27-year-old has begun to look at added value, what he can bring to his favourite set-piece. Leo Cullen’s presence in the lineout has been all encompassing over the seasons but as the venerable Blackrock boy shuffles through his twilight playing years, the Castleknock College upstart is assuming greater responsibility.
“I do see myself as running the lineout, taking a bit of control in that area, getting more of a leadership role there,” he says. He knows where the improvements are necessary and if a Leinster pack feels any pressure, it is always what they have behind them, a back line itching to pull the trigger.
“One of the things we have been working on in the last few weeks is our platform,” adds Toner. “We haven’t provided a good platform for the backs. We did alright against Cardiff. We’ll work on it more this week. We need to get the platform right and we need to get the breakdown right. That will be massive. Then, we’ll see what comes after that.”
What come next are the running backs, Brian O’Driscoll, Ian Madigan, Rob Kearney Lote Tuquiri, Gordon D’Arcy, Fergus McFadden and Jimmy Gopperth. No, they won’t all fit but that’s O’Connor’s headache and if votaries are to be placed at the feet of the Munster lock, so too does the arrival of a bespoke, perfectly-sprung O’Driscoll bring consequence and influence beyond outside centre. If there are equals in their own fields of calling plays, setting tone and individually effecting outcomes, O’Driscoll and O’Connell share a throne.
“We were delighted to have Brian back last week. We do look up to him when he plays,” says Toner. “He played awesome, as you could see. Any time I am in camps with Paul and Brian, they speak very well. Everyone respects them because of what they have achieved. I think they would be quite similar for their squads.”
The first lineout, the first carry, the first big turnover and Thomond Park will be watching. If anyone does they know what works on the big stage.