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Dublin: 12°C Tuesday 18 May 2021

Set-piece, Sopranos, pasta: Toner set for ferocious Welsh challenge

The 30-year-old lock is a key man in Joe Schmidt’s side.

DEVIN TONER ISN’T owning up to the penalty offence that saw Donnacha Ryan sin-binned against Italy in round two of the Six Nations.

It was the Munster man who was shown yellow by referee Glen Jackson after Italy’s maul was collapsed as it headed for Ireland’s tryline, but Toner certainly looked the far guiltier party.


Indeed, Ryan was on his feet to the side of the maul as it crashed to deck.

“No, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” says Toner with a smile when the matter is raised.

“It was neither of us!”

Just as well the pair of them are combining so well for Ireland in the second row, or Ryan might have held it against Toner for not putting his hand up and taking the 10-minute breather.

Ryan hardly complained before making his way to the sideline that day, although he did glower from the tiny chair provided as the sin bin at Stadio Olimpico.


Toner owes his locking partner a pint or two, that much is fair to say, and the towering Leinster lock will happily sort out the rounds if Ireland can secure their third Six Nations title in four years over the coming fortnight.

A possible championship decider against England sits tantalisingly in the background on the final weekend of the Six Nations, but before that Ireland face a visit to Cardiff tomorrow for their first-ever Friday night fixture, an 8.05pm start.

Toner has played in several late kick-offs with Leinster and describes these match days as “pretty boring.”

The 30-year-old will while away the extra hours with lots of sleeping, a stroll in Cardiff, possibly a coffee stop, and watching shows on his laptop – he’s working his way through the Sopranos again at the moment.

There’s also lots of eating involved. Breakfast at 10am - eggs, toast, porridge, bacon, then back to bed. Lunch at 12.30pm – chicken, pasta, rice. The pre-match meal at 3.30pm – bolognese, more pasta. “I love pasta,” says Toner with a laugh.

The routine will be a very familiar one for most of Ireland’s players, and as the game draws closer, the focus will rise and Toner will turn to his notebook and begin to run through his particular area of leadership – the lineout.

The 6’11” lock runs Ireland’s lineout and an intense challenge is expected in this department against the Welsh, whose set-piece is led by captain Alun Wyn Jones.

Ireland’s basic lineout stats from their last outing against France read 22 out of 22 in terms of success, but Toner underlines that the 100% ‘success’ rate is not truly reflective of what occurred.

Devin Toner Toner is a key figure for this Ireland side. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“They weren’t all great quality. I think we had two or three overthrows, a couple of the deliveries weren’t great and on a couple the execution wasn’t great. So of that 22, I’d say 16 or so were ok, but that’s a good number for a Test match.”

Toner is keeping high standards, but then Ireland have excelled in this area in recent years.

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The days of the Devin Toner-Paul O’Connell-Peter O’Mahony triumvirate were probably peak times for Ireland’s lineout, but now Toner is working with Ryan and back row jumpers like CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip.

For now, O’Mahony remains on the bench.

“I’m happy with whoever plays,” says Toner. “Obviously, to have someone like Pete, he’s an unbelievable jumper. You can pretty much lift him so easily.

“We used to say when it was Paulie and me lifting him [O'Mahony], it was unbeatable. I was at the back lifting him and he used to be coming out of my hand.

“That’d be better than someone lifting me, so it’s all about the options you have and working with it. It’s all about a balancing act.”

As for the Welsh lineout and its threats tomorrow, Toner is not reading too much into the fact that second row Jake Ball has been barely utilised as a jumper, taking just two lineout balls so far in the championship.

“He’s actually not too bad. When he does get up in the air, he’s actually quite good. I think you’ve got [Justin] Tipuric, who’s kind of like Pete, where he’s very springy, and [Sam] Warburton can get up as well.

Devin Toner wins a line-out Toner rises above the French lineout in Dublin. Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

“So they have a very springy back row and Ball is a very strong man, so he can throw them up very, very high. You’ve obviously got Alun Wyn [Jones], who is very smart and can get up as well.”

Toner is also central to Ireland’s restarts, where he links superbly with out-half Johnny Sexton, although his role in that set-piece is not an organisational one.

“We’re told where we’re going to stand and where we’re going to chase as well. We’re presented with the picture on a Thursday, in a normal week, so we wouldn’t do any work in the front half of the week.”

We know that Toner loves to rack up huge ruck numbers too – he hit the 50 mark against Scotland – while his ball carrying and distribution have continued to improve in recent seasons as he has developed into a consistently excellent Test lock.

While Toner took over the important job of calling of Ireland’s lineout after the retirement of O’Connell, he also shifted across to the tighthead side of the scrum following the legendary lock’s departure.

It’s gone pretty well,” says Toner of the switch. “I started off my career on the loosehead side and then the last couple of years I’ve been on the tight.

“They just saw the weight that I have behind me and said, ‘Why don’t we put the 129kg fella in behind the tighthead?’ It’s worked out pretty well for me, Feeky [Ireland scrum coach Greg Feek] is pretty happy.

“Maybe it’s a bit more pressure and weight coming through. I’ve just got to stick behind Tadhg [Furlong] as much as I can. There’s not a huge amount of difference as far as I can see.”

Typical Toner – not too much fuss.

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Murray Kinsella

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