IF THERE IS one area which Scotland have continually been able to operate with great strength in depth in recent lean years, it is the second row.
Any danger of overlooking the locks this week was made impossible by Scott Johnson’s decision to leave the eye-catching Richie Gray on the bench, in favour of the dogged Tim Swinson.
Standing opposite the English-born Glasgow Warrior today will be a man who has slowly but surely made himself an expected selection in an international shirt.
Devin Toner starts alongside captain Paul O’Connell for the beginning of Ireland’s Six Nations campaign this afternoon (15.00, RTE 2), that makes him an ever-present since Joe Schmidt took over as Ireland head coach
“Every time you’re picked to start, it’s good to know that coaches have confidence in you,” Toner says to microphones on the end of straining arms in Carton House, “The coach’s confidence in you spurs you on. But you only get picked for one game; after that, it’s how you played before. You‘ve really got to take it one game at a time.”
It wasn’t so long ago that Toner was struggling to nail down a position at provincial level and had no choice but to take it one game at a time. As Leinster coach, Schmidt noted at one stage that Toner’s immense 6’ 10” frame made it difficult for him to maintain his optimum weight; and so the energy spent in one match would sap his power levels and make it difficult to replicate a performance one week later.
Speaking after being announced in his first Six Nations starting line-up, Toner agreed that an improvement in that area is mostly down to a metabolism, naturally slowed with age. But as a second row, he is also in a position which pulls no punches for the inexperienced.
“As I get older it gets easier to play. I suppose I never really believed it when I was young – when I was 21 or 22 – that you get better with age, but you do get seasoned and you get a lot of experience and I think that’s kind of stuck for me.”
His last outing in green didn’t exactly look easy, but Irish fans were certainly treated to a different side of the gentleman giant 27-year-old.
Against New Zealand, Toner played the best game of his career. He was a man possessed; slamming into tackles, pumping his legs through contact with tacklers and working in tandem with O’Connell to destroy so many New Zealand moves before they got started.
The Meath man puts his upturn in form down to increased confidence, and that upward curve only kept stretching after starting each of the November internationals, but the last one allowed him to banish any doubts which may have lingered.
“That New Zealand game was massive in cementing for me that: ‘Yeah, I can play at this level’. I want to play at this level and if I want to keep playing at this level then I have to play like that every time.”
He’s still well on the right side of 30, so of course Toner isn’t a man growing anxious about his age. No even when he’s asked to look back on his school days, when he first came across Martin Moore, who could make his debut from the replacements bench today.
“I was in sixth year, he was in first year,” Toner explains with a relatively bemused look before rejecting accusations that he may have inflicted the odd atomic wedgie on the man who would go on to leave Castleknock College and become ‘the baby calf’ – “I wouldn’t have been able to lift him.”
Scotland will arrive in Lansdowne Road today hoping to grind the game to a halt and turn Ireland’s back three of Andrew Trimble, Rob and Dave Kearney with the powerful boot of Duncan Weir and Stuart Hogg.
To counteract that, O’Connell this week hinted that a lot of the subtle elements of the gameplan may be shelved in favour of some good old fashioned blood-and-thunder, up-and-under stuff. But whatever the weather, hard work and quick ball will be the mantra, says Toner:
“In these games what you’ve got to do right is the simple things: You’ve got to ruck out the ball, get two in every time. You just got to see them early, I suppose. You’ve got to work early, work harder than them and the key is not to make it into a battle and get quick ruck ball. That’s what we’re going to try to focus on.”
Ireland: R Kearney, A Trimble , B O’Driscoll, L Marshall, D Kearney; J Sexton, C Murray: C Healy, R Best, M Ross; D Toner, P O’Connell (Capt.), P O’Mahony, C Henry, J Heaslip.
Replacements: S Cronin, J McGrath, M Moore, D Tuohy, T O’Donnell, I Boss, P Jackson, F McFadden.
Scotland: S Hogg, S Maitland, A Dunbar, D Taylor, S Lamont; D Weir, G Laidlaw: R Grant, R Ford, M Low, T Swinson, J Hamilton; R Wilson, K Brown (Capt.) D Denton.
Replacements: P Mac Arthus, A Dickinson, G Cross, R Gray, J Beattie, C Cusiter, M Scott, M Evans.
Referee: Craig Joubert.