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Chris Henry: Devin Toner's omission further proof that old skills have been sacrificed on the altar of power

No go: Devin Toner has been left out of Irish squad
No go: Devin Toner has been left out of Irish squad
Chris Henry

By Chris Henry

It's a different game now than the one I played when I first came through. I was sure of it the day I retired and the mistake of omitting Devin Toner from Ireland's squad for the World Cup yesterday only goes to further my point.

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That I was never going to be as strong as some of my back-row contemporaries was straight physics. My gym scores were never going to match guys like Stephen Ferris or Sean O'Brien, so it was a case of finding another way to thrive. For me, that meant using what I suppose would be called my 'rugby brain' to get into positions that other guys didn't. Essentially, I would have to out-think the stronger guys I was playing against.

Age catches up to every player but, by the time my playing days were nearing their end, I sensed there was more to it than that. It was becoming less and less realistic for someone to use smarts to compensate for a lack of brute strength.

I've lifted Toner in a line-out and scrummaged behind him at the set-piece, so I can tell you he's not wanting for a bit of heft but, given his frame, is never going to be described as dynamic.

What he does bring is a wealth of intellectual property and an understanding of the line-out to rival anyone in the game.

Consider from whom he learned his trade. Paul O'Connell and Leo Cullen, two men who were virtual professors of the set-piece, and Donnacha Ryan, whose own contributions out of touch always went a bit overlooked.

He's taken a bit from all of them and has been the lynchpin for Ireland there. When it comes to the line-out, if the opposition doesn't try and take away that 'trigger-ball', Devin will call it on himself all day long. The focus that draws from opposing packs frees up everyone else to succeed.

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He's a hooker's security blanket and, while the line-out didn't improve against England after his introduction, his absence will be keenly felt.

More besides, he's a great fella who is well-liked throughout the squad, and that's not unimportant when it comes to a group who'll be living in each other's pockets in an unfamiliar environment for the better part of two months.

All these variables now, though, seem to be sacrificed at the altar of power.

We've seen Ireland get beaten up by England twice so far in 2019 and, with the potential for a last-eight clash with the equally sizeable Springboks on the horizon, the concern that Schmidt's side can be physically bullied by bigger teams needed to be considered if the semi-final goal is to be achieved.

England are a fine example of a side boasting a huge number of physical specimens, that group only growing with the likes of Joe Cokanasiga coming into a side that already contained Maro Itoje, the Vunipola brothers and a fit-again Manu Tuilagi.

It's a young man's game now... or, more accurately, a game for large, young men.

Enter Jean Kleyn. I've never had a conversation with the man, so it's no disrespect to him at all, but it's a massive call to make considering the credit Devin will have had in the bank after a near-decade working with Joe.

Given that the native South African only qualified for Ireland days before that first warm-up, his inclusion was always likely to cause a bit of a storm throughout social media, but as a nation we don't tend to produce too many players with the physical attributes of James Ryan or Iain Henderson.

Residency laws and their relative merits aside, this is a straight call between physicality and abrasiveness - even if Kleyn didn't make too much of a difference against England's big boys in Twickenham - over experience and set-piece nous.

It's clear which qualities now are seen as having a greater value.

If you don't like it, the bad news is that it's the way the game is going and I can't see it changing.

Now that the squad is named, for all the debate it will cause over the next few days and beyond, it's a huge opportunity for the Munsterman to go to a World Cup and really make his mark.

Let's hope it's a gamble that ultimately pays off.

Murphy will be devastated his sacrifice hasn't been rewarded

It's never been a particular secret that Jordi Murphy's move to Ulster at the end of last season was with his Ireland future and Japan 2019 in mind.

Jordi Murphy

The dyed-in-the-wool Leinsterman would have banked a far bigger wage to take his talents abroad while, given how he played in his final season at the RDS Arena, he was hardly being ushered out of Dublin either.

His decision to head north was borne of a desire to keep his Ireland place and, given what we've seen from the IRFU before and since, was no doubt encouraged by the powers that be. Fluid boundaries between the provinces have been a calling card under the regime of David Nucifora, so it has to be seen as somewhat surprising that there was no reward for Murphy in the form of a second World Cup.

Obviously I'm not advocating taking players who aren't there on merit, but there is so little to choose between Murphy and Rhys Ruddock that it could literally have been the toss of a coin. Jordi got the nod last time around with Rhys the first back-rower called out. This time it could be the other way around.

I haven't seen Rhys do anything I think Jordi can't, and vice versa, but, given what the latter has sacrificed to book his spot - leaving his comfort zone but remaining in the system - I'm sure he's devastated.

To not even get a crack this summer in his favourite role makes it an especially bitter pill to swallow. Versatility is brilliant, never more so at a World Cup, but it does you no favours if you're only given chances played out of position.

Another Ulsterman to lose out was Will Addison and that was one that really surprised me.

All the indications yesterday were that he'd done enough to get on the plane and I thought getting through what he did against Wales in Cardiff had got him there.

If there's any consolation to be found... it'll be quite the side Dan McFarland can put out in those first few weeks of the Guinness PRO14.

No way Schmidt was keeping it all under wraps

As people more than players, it’s only natural that Rugby World Cup hopefuls will have been keen to share their news, good or bad, with their nearest and dearest as soon as they found out whether their ticket to Japan was booked.

Joe Schmidt

You tell your friends and family whether you’re in or out and, no matter whether a warning of secrecy is issued along with it, news like this has a way of getting out.

With that in mind, it always seemed ludicrous to think that Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad would be decided upon yesterday morning and kept under wraps until Sunday.

Sure enough, the supposed secret didn’t even last a day and, while I’m sure the IRFU would have preferred to keep to the schedule they had laid out, I think it’s better for the players that it’s out in the open and we have some clarity.

The most nervous I’ve been in my career wasn’t for a 23, it was the anxious wait to hear the 31 for the 2015 World Cup. It was bad enough trying to get your mind off that long wait for the email to drop, but I certainly wouldn’t have relished then having the public speculation rage on for another week.

I’m not sure if Eddie Jones naming his England squad so far in advance is the way forward either, but surely there’s a happy medium to be found.

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