Why Devin Toner is Liam Neeson in ‘Taken’

No one has won more caps in the Schmidt era than the Leinster lock

Devin Toner: “It’s brilliant obviously when you have the confidence of the coaches, it’s really good for your own self-confidence.” Photograph: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Devin Toner: “It’s brilliant obviously when you have the confidence of the coaches, it’s really good for your own self-confidence.” Photograph: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

 

Devin Toner will never be taken by his durable achievements.  

“I have, to quote Liam Neeson, ‘a certain set of skills’ that I know do well for me,” goes this all-but-7ft man who has served Joe Schmidt’s Ireland more than anyone else.

“Who’s second?” Toner, typically, asks in an attempt to deflect attention when informed that 49 (43 starts) of his 56 caps in the 53-game Schmidt era is a record.

The answer is Jack McGrath’s 48 caps since the prop’s debut on Schmidt’s official introduction against Samoa in November 2013. McGrath has only started 30 of these matches due to Cian Healy and a few war wounds.

In the past five years nobody can remember a Toner injury whereas athletic prodigies like Iain Henderson and James Ryan have missed plenty of rugby.

Henderson appeared to commence Toner’s permanent removal from the Ireland team when selected alongside Donnacha Ryan for victory over England last March. He took to calling the lineout while James Ryan’s potential to become a gold-standard lock seemed to reinforce the theory.

Toner smiled at this suggestion, after playing alongside Ryan last November, before promising a long goodbye, “No, I won’t give up the jersey without a fight”.

For the Irish coaches, Simon Easterby and Schmidt, he brings a reassuring, calming presence.  

“I stick to my strengths, I know what I’m good at,” he shrugged after the Neeson joke. “I’m reliable, dependable, I try not to make any mistakes and I run a good lineout, I’m good at restarts.”

Blend together

He quickly switches to the mundane: “And with the secondary stuff, obviously, trying to get my ruck better, clean out, tackle, defence. They all kind of blend together, so over the years that’s me basically.” 

Schmidt declared Henderson “fully fit” for Saturday’s tilt at capturing the Six Nations title yet the Ulster man does not make the starting XV as, ever the medium-term strategist, the national coach offers Toner another chance to deny the next great Irish engine room the chance to solidify.

There is clear logic.

“It adds to our last 20, 30 minute of the game where an athlete like Iain can come on and Andrew Porter and Jack McGrath . . . so we are hoping those guys can bring some real energy into that last quarter.”

That’s the secret, the masterplan, the key to Schmidt’s Ireland going where no Irish rugby team has been before. Three Six Nations in five seasons would make this a fact. All with Toner rumbling along since Leinster’s patient investment in the beanpole kid out of Castleknock College.

Schmidt was consistently picking him at Leinster until the Brad Thorn-Leo Cullen alternative reared up in 2012.

“He obviously had a fair bit of confidence in me in Leinster as well. I played a fair bit of the 2012 season and then Brad came in and he played the semi, the final. I think a lot of the pool games I started.

“Then when he came into Ireland, I remember getting picked to start the first Six Nations game and I was blown away, like ‘jeez what’s going on?’ Then I kept getting picked. It’s brilliant obviously when you have the confidence of the coaches, it’s really good for your own self-confidence.”

Growing pains

Schmidt had precious other option to partner Paul O’Connell. The since decamped Donnacha Ryan was injured for almost two years as Henderson suffered growing pains.

Toner was promoted too soon, exposed against the All Blacks in November 2010, until his timely reappearance rescued Ireland with a soaring leap under vicious Texas sun on the 2013 summer tour. Schmidt, lingering in the background as Les Kiss held the fort, had seen enough.

“I’m a different player now than I was then, but there’s a lot of competition as well. You had Paulie, Donncha O’Callaghan, Mick O’Driscoll. I was young. And I’ve learned a lot over the years anyway. I’ve learned more how to control myself.”

Never injured and, to quote Liam, with a very particular set of skills, skills he has acquired over a very long career.

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