eye on the prize

Toner ready to reach out and grab 'special' win for Ireland

Ireland’s leading lock is braced for another Titanic battle with the world’s best second row pairing.

Updated 08.45

EVEN BEFORE IRELAND and Argentina reached the halfway point last week, many onlookers had already come to the conclusion that, without even taking the field,  Devin Toner had played his way into the starting line-up for today’s clash with New Zealand (kick-off 7pm, RTE 2).

The line-out struggled badly without the tallest of timber, who is also the experienced voice tasked with calling the set-piece when he is on the field.

Jordan Larmour and Devin Toner Devin Toner and Jordan Larmour leave the field last Saturday. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

Sure enough, Joe Schmidt unveiled his team on Thursday with just two changes not enforced by injury and Toner was back as a totemic presence in Ireland’s pack.

“It’s not all about set-piece hopefully,” says Toner, gently reminding those listening that he lends his weight to plenty of collisions and rucks around the park too.

However, the line-out will be an essential platform if Ireland are to take a second ever win over the All Blacks at the Aviva Stadium tonight as it so often provides the base for Ireland’s attack.

And while New Zealand succeeded in stealing five of England’s 15 line-outs in Twickenham, Toner and his pack made sure to take a long look at the maul which led to Dylan Hartley’s 24th-minute try.

“The All Blacks learned from that first drive,” the Meathman cautions. 

“England tried that same maul three times in a row. For the third one, (New Zealand) tried to steal it.  They didn’t get over for the second or third.

Bundee Aki, Garry Ringrose, Jacob Stockdale, Josh van der Flier, Jordi Murphy, CJ Stander, Iain Henderson, Devin Toner and Cian Healy with Ian McIlrath before the team photo CJ Stander and Jacob Stockdale enjoy joke during the team photo yesterday. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“There are weaknesses in every team. It is just eight people on eight people. If you get the right drive, you get the right return.”

The right return for Ireland tonight would be a first home success over world rugby’s most recognisable brand and number one team. And such has been Ireland’s success over the past year, a win would narrow the gap at the top of the world rankings and — unofficially, if not on paper — give them some claim to being the best in the world on current form.

There’s no trophy on offer, but it’s a title worth being associated with as the calendar flips to 2019.

It would be something special to be known as that, to be part of a team that’s best in the world.

“But we’ve a bit to go before that. We’ll have to perform over the next while now.”

Performing will likely mean out-performing a formidable second row partnership in Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick on the day of their All Black-record breaking 50th Test start in tandem.

Devin Toner and Sam Whitelock Toner and Whitelock doing battle in 2016. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Whitelock is an archetype of the position, ticking all the boxes for exactly what you could want from a tighthead lock. Retallick is something else though. On top of acting in that ‘enforcer’ role that tends to go with the number 4 shirt, the 27-year-old has gone a long way to changing the way people see the second row positions as he has brought genuine handling skills to offer playmaking threat with clever screen passes.

“Yeah, he’s making us look bad now,” says Toner, whose passing is an increasingly common feature in his performances.

He’s your all-rounder and he has kind of changed it to be honest. He was a deserving winner of World Player of the Year there a couple of years ago and he’s just continued on.”

“I think there’s so much been said about him so far I can’t really add to it, to be honest… he can score tries, he tackles, he poaches, he’s stealing line-outs, he’s winning line-outs.

“Then Whitelock has a really good skill-set, he’s great at restarts, they’re both great at restarts, so personally as a second row, to come up against the two of them, it’s huge for me in my career and hopefully we come out the other side of it.”

– Updated 08.45: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Ireland can replace New Zealand as world number one with victory this evening; New Zealand will remain as number one, irrespective of the result.

Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42 / SoundCloud

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