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Toner not fading as he aims to reclaim his Ireland place


By David Kelly

As a fall from grace, it was quite the precipitous plunge for one seemingly so favoured by Joe Schmidt.

The Kiwi has cleaved to no other player like Devin Toner during his 53-game reign as national coach.

The Meath man has been involved in all but four of them - curiously, aside from two World Cup warm-up matches, the other pair he sat out were engagements with Canada.

And he normally starts, too - 43 of those 49 caps - but, when Ireland welcomed England to Dublin a year ago, Toner was elbowed from the fray as Donnacha Ryan started alongside Iain Henderson, the latter's try proving crucial in the party-pooping pillage.

Since then, he has had to deal with the emergence of another Ryan - James - but, when Schmidt concluded the 20-minute second-row selection debate this week, the Kiwi didn't hesitate to return to his trusted totem.

A sceptic might suggest that Henderson will resume his berth against the English but, for now at least, Toner stands tall.

"I think it's relatively recent form that has allowed him to springboard himself right into the forefront of our thinking," said the coach. "It's also his ability to call a lineout, to keep a lineout ticking over in a positive manner. It's his ability to challenge opposition lineouts as well.

"When you are throwing in and your opponent has 6ft 10in, it looks quite high, it puts a bit of pressure on.

"In the kick-offs and receiving kick-offs, it's great to have Dev out there. When it goes in the air, I don't know if you've seen how big his hands are in proportion to the rest of his body, the ball sticks in there really well."

Toner, almost self-mockingly, affirms that he has always thrived upon these core qualities demanded of a lock.

"To quote Liam Neeson, I've 'a special set of skills' that I know do well for me. I stick to my strengths, I know what I'm good at," he said.

"I'm reliable, dependable, I try not to make any mistakes and I run a good lineout, I'm good at restarts. That's what I want to be good at. And with the secondary stuff, obviously trying to get my ruck better, clean out, tackle, defence. They all kind of blend together, so over the years that's me basically."

There is more to him than meets the eye, though, even though that would appear improbable given his impressive frame. Aside from hoovering up aerial ball with those shovel-like hands, Toner has also developed into a much more capable footballer, demonstrating his readiness to become available as a receiver for those deft pull backs which Ireland have increasingly begun to deploy in the red zone.

"I've always had good hands to be honest. I think as the game has progressed over the years we've started to do that more," he said. "As the game has progressed I've kind of progressed with it. I've always been pretty happy with my skills."

His core strengths remain just that but he has also removed lingering weakness from his game; shedding a bundle of weight - some eight kilos - also helped to propel him to even greater heights.

Hence, Schmidt had no qualms about keeping his lion in reserve.

Schmidt explained: "Part of it is Iain is probably going to be short of a gallop, we think for Iain 20-30 minutes is probably more manageable coming back into the side."

He removed Henderson when he visibly struggled in the reverse fixture, Ireland's last international defeat, 13 months ago.

Now, Toner aims to keep his name in the frame.

"I don't think the circle is complete," he said when asked to assess his status now compared to his removal against England last season.

"The circle never stops to be honest. You kind of keep on going and take every game as it comes. Nobody wants to be benched, everyone wants to start every game they can. We are interchangeable, you have seen that in the different selections there has been and Hendy has another string to his bow.

"He can call lineouts as well just as well as myself. He has upped his skill-set from last year.

"I wouldn't be happy if I got dropped for the next game."

That's how it goes.

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