'He just smashed their talisman' - Andrew Trimble on Ireland's most underrated of heroes
Hammer the hammer.
How many times does one man have to be written off?
Devin Toner is a player Ireland and Joe Schmidt just can’t quit. For every time Ireland have tried to move on without him – for every time he has been undervalued and written off – he has returned to prove his worth.
While the likes of Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony, Ian Henderson, Sean O’Brien and more were left at Carton House, to train under the watchful eye of Schmidt, Toner loaded up his gear bag and set off for Chicago. Not to start. To take a seat on the bench, in case of emergencies.
Quinn Roux and Tadhg Beirne then went ahead and had fine performances in the flaking of a flaky Italian side and the second row debate got even more complicated. Beirne, Henderson, Roux, Toner and James Ryan. Only two from that five would start against the All Blacks.
Schmidt started Henderson and Ryan against Argentina and Toner was again left on the bench.
Schmidt was understandably tempted to pair two absolute warhorses – in Ryan and Henderson – but the lineout malfunctioned. With Brodie Retallick running amok against the English lineout, at Twickenham, only hours earlier, Toner’s stock rose. It zipped higher when Toner came on in the final quarter and the Irish lineout improved massively.
But to identify Toner as just a lineout specialist – and a damn fine one – is to overlook the many qualities the 6-foot-10 lock has to offer, most particularly around the breakdown.
The Leinster man would get another opportunity to show there was more to him than his considerable height and lineout nous when Schmidt handed him No.4 to face the All Blacks.
Within 10 minutes of the match, Toner had laid down an impressive marker. Part of the Irish game-plan involved going after New Zealand’s talisman in the pack, Brodie Retallick.
Had anyone from outside the Irish camp suggested that last week they would have been laughed out of the room. Retallick is one of the world’s best players and a freak of nature when it comes to pace, power and sublime ball-handling.
If anything, most would have paired Retallick up against James Ryan – another second-row phenom – for the weekend clash. Those two did have a couple of pitch-shuddering collisions but the stand-out tackle of the night was Toner felling the Chiefs lock.
On Baz & Andrew's House of Rugby, Alex Payne marvelled at that 'Big Dev' statement maker.
"What was interesting," Payne began, "is off the back of that game, [All Blacks coach] Steve Hansen said, 'He doesn't look like an athlete but, by God, he is an athlete!' I mean, almost his finest performance in an Irish jersey?"
"It was big, yeah," Andrew Trimble agreed.
"And it was another big, significant moment. He just smashed Brodie Retallick, their talisman."
13 minutes in and only 3-0 up, but being penned in their own half, Ireland still needed a rousing moment. Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander had already delivered, with a great turnover double-act on Kieran Read.
Toner delivered the second big rallying call and Ireland grew into the game thereafter.
After Saturday's USA clash, it will be three months before Ireland play again. No doubt, by the time that Six Nations game against England draws near, Toner's place in the time will be up for debate again.
All the big guy can do is do what he has consistently done since Schmidt touched down in Ireland, eight years ago, and built so much around him.