Toner a conspicuous absentee as Ryan vows a 'seamless transition' with Henderson

The big Leinster lock has started 36 Tests since Schmidt took charge of Ireland, but makes way for a new combination this weekend.

‘WE’LL SEE ON Saturday.”

Donnacha Ryan wasn’t even willing to reveal which lock would be calling Ireland’s line-out this weekend.

Devin Toner Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

One surprise in the engine room was probably enough for one day after Devin Toner was dropped to the bench for Saturday’s visit of England.

The Meathman has been the totemic presence around which Joe Schmidt has built his Ireland pack around, starting 82% of Schmidt’s 44 Tests in charge. It’s not unheard of for Toner to sit a match out or play as a replacement, but a quick check down the games when that has actually happened makes it clear how important Schmidt has viewed him to success.

The biggest game Toner was not asked to start in Schmidt’s tenure was the Rugby World Cup pool encounter with Italy in London. Aside from that, he had replacement duties in a November meeting with Georgia, a summer tour match in Argentina and his remaining missing matches saw Ireland take on Wales (two World Cup warm-ups) and Canada (at the World Cup and last November).

Iain Henderson and Donnacha Ryan Source: James Crombie/INPHO

In the Schmidt era, Toner starts big games and quite often plays the full 80 too.

But that all changes on Saturday as Iain Henderson and Ryan strike up a new starting second row combination.

“We slot in and out, he came on the last day,” Ryan says to highlight the minutes he has had working in tandem with the powerful Ulsterman.

“We’d collaborate a lot during training, during the last camp as well. There’s no problem and Dev could come back in there as well. It’s a seamless transition. We’re all comfortable with it.

We just click back in, we both know the systems we have in place. It’s not really something that would be alien to us.”

Still, given Toner’s track record under Schmidt, it was a surprise to go through the first five names on the team-sheet and not see the 6’10″ Leinster lock present.

“Yeah, it’s a tough call. It’s a tough call across the board. I think we’re all on par, we’ve all got different strengths and weaknesses. We’re all adaptable to fit in to what the coaches need us to do for the particular challenge we’re facing… when Dev gets on the pitch he’ll add a massive amount of impetus and a massive amount of energy.”

Donnacha Ryan dejected after the game Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Henderson in place of Toner clearly creates a different dynamic. Ireland will have an agile second row pairing, a first step away from the unsuccessful efforts to steam-roll Wales – a method which was never going to be plausible against the all conquering England.

The Grizzled Munster man had a firm hand on the party line when quizzed about the prospect of ending the old enemy’s 18-game winning streak and denying Eddie Jones a back-to-back Grand Slam. But on top of the ubiquitous “focusing on ourselves“, Ryan admitted that the edge is just a little sharper when the red rose pops up on the visitors’ dressing room door.

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“Heightened awareness, certainly, and we focus on the processes as much as we can. It’ll be a high-paced game. Stick with them and try to impose ourselves as well.

“It’s always a very emotionally-charged weekend. Fans massively get in behind it and obviously Paddy’s day tomorrow. They’re all external things. We know England are a fantastic side. There’s a massive challenge put down to us, we just have to make sure we’re able to execute our own plan.”

We’ll see it on Saturday.

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Sean Farrell

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