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Ireland's Devin Toner ready to hit the heights against Australian mentor Michael Cheika

By Cian Tracey

As Devin Toner settles his 6ft 11in frame into a chair at Ireland's base, there is a distinctly more relaxed nature about his demeanour, as well as in the way in which he addresses the small group of journalists. The towering second-row has never been totally at ease speaking with the media but then again, he is in his second year as a seasoned international, so why shouldn't he feel more at home in the now familiar surroundings of Carton House?

At 28, Toner may have been a late bloomer but he is certainly making up for lost time. As his mind drifts back to his early days at Leinster, he recalls the influence that current Australia coach Michael Cheika had on his career.

Cheika had just taken over as head coach in May 2005 but it wasn't until eight months later that he handed Toner his senior debut, against Border Reivers.

As a 19-year old, the former Castleknock College pupil had just graduated from the Leinster Academy and after acknowledging that he struggled to get to grips with the physicality required at the top level, the conversation takes an immediate turn to Cheika's infamous "tough love" approach.

The Australian's no-nonsense approach shaped the careers of many players, and Toner is no different.

"As a young player, it's 100pc what he had for you, tough love," Toner explains with a wry smile.

"I'm not saying lads were scared of him but he's a coach that demands respect and as a young lad you'd respect him hugely. When you're young and going in, it's a hard place to go when you do have a coach like that, you know you don't want to mess up.

"I have a huge amount of respect for him. He's been a really successful coach with Leinster, and in Australia.

"He really drives on the discipline and everything in the squad. It's been well documented how he turned Leinster around and got them back on track.

"His character is quite hard-edged, but he knows his stuff."

Cheika led Leinster to their first Heineken Cup title in 2009, setting the platform for Joe Schmidt to bring the province to the next level and dominate Europe, and Toner hasn't forgotten the debt he owes the new Wallabies coach.

"He is the coach that gave me my first professional contract, so yeah," Toner replied when asked if there was a sense of gratitude on his part.

"It's not like he was waiting for me to get good. He gave me my chance, he kinda threw me in at the deep end. It was sink or swim.

"Mike Brewer, the forwards coach, and Cheika were kind of saying that I basically needed to get more physical. You'd go through video sessions with them saying, 'right, you could have done this or you could have done that'.

"One of the massive things is that he drills the discipline in the squad, being disciplined in everything you do, being on time, your dress code. He commands respect."

The parallels with Schmidt are clear but come Saturday evening, the latter's protégés will be plotting the downfall of one of the most influential coaches to have landed on this island.

Cheika and his side arrive in Dublin after a thrilling but laboured defeat in Paris.

"After that performance against South Africa, there's no point coming out and falling by the wayside against Australia. That's what our focus is - to reach that standard again," Toner said.

It's not just Ireland's standards that have been set going forward but Toner's have as well.

Now more relaxed on the international stage, he has come a long way since Cheika's 'sink or swim' days.

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