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Toner becoming a giant of the Irish pack, even if he's still a little unsung

The 30-year-old lock has worked hard on his lineout calling and physicality.

IT DIDN’T ALWAYS look like Devin Toner was going to turn into one of the true leaders of Ireland’s pack.

A big man, sure. A lineout operator of high quality, definitely. But someone who could step up physically and plough into rucks, carries and tackles consistently well for 80 minutes at Test level?

Not everyone would have backed the Meath man to develop into that player.

Devin Toner Toner is a key man in this Irish team. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

And yet here we find Toner as one of the best second rows in the international game in 2016, having built on his impressive form of recent seasons under Joe Schmidt.

He has been running Ireland’s lineout since Paul O’Connell’s retirement, racking up incredible ruck numbers and also doing the short-range carrying and close-in tackling that is a requirement for any lock.

“It happens naturally,” says 30-year-old Toner. “The more you play, the more years you have under your belt, the more you get embedded in a team, the more confident you get. You hear it said the whole time from second rows: you get better with age.

“I feel better in myself, more confident in myself, more confident in the way I’m playing. Yeah, it kind of feels good getting around the pitch.”

One of Toner’s standout moments last weekend against the All Blacks was a thumping hit on Dane Coles wide out on the left of the pitch.

The former Castleknock College man – who made his Ireland debut in 2010 – doesn’t think he would have made that tackle in his younger years, but he has become more adept at using his 125kg weight in contact.

“You learn how to use your body,” says Toner. “When I was younger, I was staying too high in the tackle.

“People were able to get under you and dominate you. I was on the end of a few spear tackles when I was 20-years-old. You learn as you go on, how to go into contact low and how to dominate, how to use your weight.”

Toner still works hard on his extras after training, practicing low arrival as he hits bags. During the squad sessions, he brings intense focus to low ruck and maul entries, building the habit for game day.

Devin T

It means that despite his 6’11″ height, Toner can satisfy Joe Schmidt’s notoriously tough demands.

“You don’t get any leeway from Joe! You need to do the best you can. I’m obviously there because of my height. There’s no bones about it.

“You’re not going to get any leeway when it comes to clearing rucks or getting down low into the tackle or getting into the maul.”

While Toner has brought notably increased physicality to his game in recent seasons, he is still some way off being viewed as an ‘enforcer’ lock, one of the big men who lays down the law to the opposition.

He does bring venom to the ruck quite often, but the Leinster man believes that there is still more to come in terms of imposing himself on the opposition.

“I’d kind of like to do it more, that is part of my game that I would like to work on; being more physical and being able to use my weight a bit more at ruck time, at maul time; being able to use it more.

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“There is a reason that people don’t talk about it; because it doesn’t happen that often and that is a negative that I have to work on, that I do have to use it more.”

The self-critical and self-analysing aspect of Toner is important to his growth as a player, particularly at set-piece time.

His role as Ireland’s lineout caller is an important one, given that Schmidt’s side tend to score a high percentage of their tries from this possession platform – either by striking off the lineout with clever power plays or through their maul.

Devin Toner The 30-year-old Meath man is comfortable in his skin. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Toner feels he has grown as a caller of the lineout, with a ‘less is more’ mindset sometimes helping.

“Probably the preparation, being able to see where the gaps are and see where it will be available and getting that in your mind,” says Toner when asked how he has improved his calling.

“I used to go into a week with 30 or 40 lineout calls running through my head, but now I’m quite good at nailing down what I’m going to do and when I’m going to do it.

“I might have two or three calls going in for a specific play, and for a weekend I might just have 15 to 20 calls in my head going into the game. So, the preparation week leading into it has gotten better.”

The glimpses of Toner’s passing ability over the course of the last two seasons have been highly positive too, with Ireland intermittently using him as a Brodie Retallick-esque link to the backline.

The lock made six passes last weekend against the All Blacks, something he welcomed.

“I always like getting my hands on the ball. I enjoy getting a touch and getting the passes in,” says Toner.

“I’m an alright handler, I suppose, and I do like it. I do like being used. It’s one of the things that Joe preaches, that everyone should be able to get their hands on the ball. It’s an All Black or Kiwi philosophy that everyone should be able to pass.”

It doesn’t bother Toner in the slightest that he is not a star of this Ireland team, with his laid back personality more suited to doing the increasingly-seen unseen work.

He does take satisfaction from the sense that he is constantly improving as a player, but sees lots more room for that upward trajectory to continue.

“I don’t think I’m as good as I can be. There are loads of things you see that you can be better at.”

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