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'Do I bluff him or not?': Toner wary of former team-mate Ryan in Racing's lineout unit

The lineout will be a key battleground during Saturday’s Champions Cup final.

Toner is relishing the lineout battle on Saturday.
Toner is relishing the lineout battle on Saturday.
Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

DEVIN TONER HAS three Heineken Cup winner’s medals at home, but the presence of Leo Cullen as the pillar of those all-conquering sides meant he didn’t feel as part of it as much as he probably should have.

With Cullen leading from the front, and foreign imports Nathan Hines and then Brad Thorn providing the backbone of the province’s European success, Toner’s opportunities were limited and he started all three of Leinster’s previous finals on the bench.

The second row didn’t see a minute of game time in the 2009 decider against Leicester Tigers and then came off the bench for the final two minutes of the indelible comeback win over Northampton two years later.

He got 22 minutes on the pitch against Ulster in Twickenham six years ago, so needless to say this campaign has felt different and victory on Saturday against Racing 92 would be the sweetest of the lot.

“It’s a lot different for me this year because there is a new group and I’ve played a bigger role,” he said. “I’ve played more games coming into it so for me it’s huge to get a win at the weekend.

“Like it’s a new squad, it’s a new team as well, a lot of young players coming through. It feels completely different because it is so different, to be honest.

“The past years Leo was in charge of the lineout and in charge of everything. Obviously, he is coach now. He’s a little bit in charge of it but a lot of the team players would take ownership for that area. So as one of the older players in the squad I would feel a little bit responsible.”

There is still always the possibility that Toner might start the 2018 final on the bench as well, but having paired up with James Ryan in the quarter and semi-final defeats of Saracens and Scarlets respectively, the expectation is that their second row combination will be retained.

Devin Toner, Leo Cullen and Malcolm O'Kelly Toner was on the bench behind Cullen and O'Kelly in 2009. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

That, in part, is also down to the uncertainty over the fitness of Jack Conan and Rhys Ruddock, with Scott Fardy deputising at blindside in the two knockout games impressively and Jordi Murphy slotting in at number eight.

At 31, Toner has produced some consistently excellent performances this season, playing a bigger role in Ireland’s Grand Slam win than many people might have expected, and then continuing that form into the business end of the season with Leinster.

The province’s set-piece has been particularly strong this season en route to Bilbao and as evidenced in the semi-final rout of Scarlets, their lineout was used as the launchpad for a couple of impressive strike plays, one of which led to James Ryan’s opening try.

That area will be a key battleground on Saturday with Racing’s defensive lineout work a huge factor in their win over Munster in the last four, with Donnacha Ryan leading that unit to consistently strip the opposition of possession.

Toner knows the lineout will need to provide Luke McGrath, or indeed Jamison Gibson-Park, with clean, quick and usable ball to strike from, and not let Ryan and his team-mates disrupt things like they did against Munster.

“They are very good at getting up in the air, first of all,” Toner explained. “Once the hooker knows that someone will be getting up in the air, it puts pressure on him to try and get it over.

“That might mean he might put a little bit more on it and overthrow it. They are very good at mirroring, just getting up in the air and putting pressure on. They do like to close the gap as well and try and disrupt as much as they can.

“On top of that, they are huge bodies. They are a big team. If you try and maul, they are really good at taking the head off a maul, coming through and trying to disrupt.

Donnacha Ryan and Devin Toner celebrate winning Ryan and Toner were part of the Ireland team which beat the All Blacks in 2016. Source: INPHO/Billy Stickland

“Their overall defence is really good. That’s where Munster struggled. They couldn’t get that set-piece sorted and get on the front foot.”

On coming up against his former team-mate Ryan, the Leinster lock added: “He is very athletic. A lot of us have played with him for a good few years with Ireland and he would know how I run a line out and I suppose I know how he runs a line out as well. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. Do I bluff him or do I not bluff him?

“At the end of the day, a line out is all down to the drills that you do. It is all about the throw, it is all about the jump, it is all about the timing. If we strip it all back to basics, if we get our drill right, we should be okay.”

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