Matt Williams: Getting rid of Devin Toner beggars belief

His ability to call and manage the set piece should have been an integral part of Ireland’s game plan

Devin Toner wins a lineout during the Autumn International against New Zealand at the Aviva stadium in November 2018. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho

Devin Toner wins a lineout during the Autumn International against New Zealand at the Aviva stadium in November 2018. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho

 

On the Thursday afternoon before the opening game of this year’s Six Nations against England, my phone started to light up. Joe Schmidt had selected Robbie Henshaw at fullback against Eddie Jones’s English team.

I was astonished.

Sections of the rugby media were trying to contact me to get a reaction, as they had the incorrect perception that I was opposed to Joe Schmidt’s coaching. Nothing could be further from the truth. On so many occasions I have publicly stated that Joe is one of the most knowledgeable and capable coaches I have ever come across.

Up until that day, to my mind, Joe Schmidt had always been shrewd, calculated and exceptionally well planned. That all changed when he selected Henshaw – one of the world’s best inside centres – at fullback. I was gobsmacked.

I said at the time that it was “the most un-Joe Schmidt decision I had ever seen.” Robbie’s credentials as a Test match standard fullback were, to say the least, exceptionally poor. And sadly for him he had a poor day at fullback. He should never have been played there and it was unfair on him.

To cut to the chase, it was a poor selection by Joe. The ramifications of that day led to the current malaise that Ireland find themselves in on the eve of a World Cup. Against England at the Aviva the Irish players lost confidence in themselves and their coaches.

And now, history repeats itself. I’m totally dumbfounded at the exclusion of Dev Toner from the World Cup squad.

Devin Toner in the Ireland huddle during the Captain’s Run ahead of the Wales game. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Devin Toner in the Ireland huddle during the Captain’s Run ahead of the Wales game. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Last January a member of the Irish team told me that Dev was on the outside. I couldn’t believe it. When I asked why, I was answered with a shrug of the shoulders. “They want him out.”

When Dev Toner started his career with Leinster I doubted the giant could be anything more than friendly. I was so very wrong. Toner has developed into an excellent international secondrow.

I regard him as the most improved player in Irish rugby. The physicality in his performance against New Zealand in November 2018 was simply astonishing. While the New Zealand game can be regarded as ancient history, Dev’s ability as the best communicator and caller of lineouts in Ireland is much undervalued. This aspect of modern of rugby is totally misunderstood by those outside the game.

The great Irish lock Malcolm O’Kelly was the best lineout exponent I have ever had the privilege of coaching. Mal was a highly educated and intellectual student of the lineout. He was coached by the genius of Willie Anderson at both London Irish and Leinster. Mal had a huge influence on Leo Cullen when Leo was a developing player. Leo, in turn, passed all this intergenerational knowledge on to Dev.

Throw into that amazing mix of experience the knowledge and wisdom that Dev has gained from working with the great Brad Thorn and Jonno Gibbs and you have a phenomenally well educated lineout brain. One that is now, unbelievably, outside Ireland’s World Cup squad.

All of which totally appals me.

If we acknowledge that Ireland want to base a significant percentage of their attacking game on their lineout, then Dev’s ability to call and manage the set piece should have been an integral part of the game plan.

Two weeks ago against England I watched Ireland’s lineout crumble. White jerseys bullied Ireland. Like a bad school playground, good players in green didn’t seem to have the moral courage to stand up to the bullies in white. I begged for Dev to return and not only call the correct lineouts for Ireland, but also to show the steel and grit required to drive the Irish set play that is so vital to the Irish attack.

In other words, run our lineout as he has done for years. This also means dealing with opposition teams in a forceful manner and using the aggression and wisdom he has picked up over the years.

Now it appears that the internal heave against Dev that I was told about in January has come to fruition.

I feel the decision to remove Dev is more a reflection on Joe Schmidt. Joe appears tired and weary of the battle. His time is coming to end and for me, that time cannot come quickly enough. Joe has been a great coach, but his decisions are indicative of a regime out of touch with the team and the people.

This year has been a poor one for the national team. This selection only adds to the malaise.

To leave Dev out and include a recently qualified South African is to ignore internal team dynamics. No current player is going to publicly criticise this decision, but internally players won’t be pleased. This has nothing to do with Jean Kleyn. He is the innocent in this story. He is eligible and should not be criticised in any way. I wish him well.

But the reality of replacing a long standing and much loved veteran with a recently qualified non-indigenous player does not promote internal cohesion within any Irish team.

Who is going to boss Ireland lineouts now? Who is going to have the smarts to out-manoeuvre the well educated lineout defenders of New Zealand or South Africa?

I can’t answer that. But I know Dev Toner could.

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