Given the number of headlines sent to print and the variety of plaudits doled out for Ireland’s performances in November, it has been telling that very few of those made a hero of Devin Toner, one of only two Irish players to have gone the full 80 minutes in the three games against Southern Hemisphere opposition.
While Conor Murray, the other member of that exclusive duo, had a hard time fielding all the garlands thrown his way, Toner was almost entirely absent from the reaction and opinion columns. If you were looking for his name in print, you were best served to keep your nose close to the screen for a one-time-only mention in the match report. Of course you’ll always get a number beside his name in the obligatory clickbait-before-there-were-clicks column devoted to ‘How The Players Rated’.
The honourable exception to this seemingly unconsidered media blackout has been the redoubtable Murray Kinsella, whose recent interview with Toner and thoroughly substantiated praise of his efforts at the breakdown against the All Blacks in Dublin have given Moynalvey’s siege engine a downpayment on the credit he has earned.
Sexy Second Rows, Lumbering Locks
Back in the days when we actually wrote articles instead of just passively-aggressively passing snide [and hilarious] comments on Twitter, we mentioned Toner in a wide-ranging treatise on Leinster’s second rows. That was almost four years ago. In that period he has completely exceeded expectations – ours and, I would assume, a lot of other people’s – while Iain Henderson, whose name we casually dropped in the company of Fabien Pelous, Paul O’Connell and Martin Johnson, hasn’t.
Nevertheless, this Mole believes that it’s safe to say that Toner hasn’t captured the imagination of the Irish rugby public in the way that Ultan Dillane or Henderson has. After the epic victory over the All Blacks in Chicago, one of the other Moles – one of the ones that gives this site what credibility it has – said to me that regardless of the result, or how well Toner and Ryan had performed in tandem, he reckoned that there was still a sizeable rump of the Irish rugby public who wanted a partnership of Henderson and Dillane to tape their ears up and start in the second row. Once it was out of his mouth, he took it back … but only to amend that as soon as he had heard the words hit the air, he had reconsidered: he actually thought it was a majority of Irish fans.
Provincial Towers Cup
Ireland are in the quite unusual position of having the four best second rows in the country divided equally amongst the four provinces; thus the situation doesn’t exist where arguments are made for retaining a provincial partnership at test level because they’re a complementary pairing, or know each others instincts, or are more than the sum of their parts … any of the given reasons [not all of them – or any of them, perhaps – implausible] that resurface when such selections are made.
With Toner in Leinster, Ryan in Munster, Dillane in Connacht and Henderson in Ulster, there’s a sense of balance across the provinces with regards to second rows. Not one of the above-mentioned players has a reliable partner in his home province who is a genuine threat to any one of the other three. There’s a part of The Mole – the completist part – that thinks it’s necessary to analyse each provincial second row and outline the issues with age, injury profile, physical stature, athletic capability, experience level or skill set that has them stranded a rung beneath the current quartet … but to be frank, it seems like it would be an exercise in stating the obvious. Schmidt, Farrell and Easterby have got the right four guys at the top of their depth chart.
The Mercurial Iain Longshanks
However, Les Kiss seems to be out of step with the troika: the Ulster head coach has selected Henderson solely in the back row this season. Henderson has been given the No6 jersey in eight of his ten Ulster outings at the time of writing and, in the only other game in which he was selected on the bench for his province this season, he wore the No20 jersey coming on for Clive Ross against the Scarlets back in September.
While Ulster fans will point to the injuries suffered by high-profile Springbok signing Marcel Coetzee and veteran open side Chris Henry as reason for Henderson’s deputisation to the flank, Ulster have a number of quality young back rows who must be desperate for game time – senior squad members Lorcan Dow and Conor Joyce have the pedigree of starting 9 of 10 games for their respective Irish U20 teams in 2015 and 2013, whilst academy member and Leinster transplant Nick Timoney [himself a highly decorated schoolboy player in his Blackrock College days] managed to pick up 8 caps alongside Dow in 2015. That Ulster’s recent inability to produce quality backrow forwards in the same numbers as Leinster or Munster may have something to do with the reluctance to actually select them – Chris Henry only played in his first game for his province as a 24 year old – is probably worth another day’s exploration in its own right.
That certainly was a tangent. Returning from it to the matter of Henderson’s position: he has always played both positions for Ulster. It’s a matter of public record. Indeed, with 33 of his 52 provincial starts [at the time of writing this article] coming in the No6 jersey, one would have to look at it cockeyed to argue against the motion that the powers that be in Ulster Rugby have seen him primarily as a blindside, rather than a lock.
What’s revealing in this analysis is that 15 of his 19 starts in the second row came in the two seasons under Mark Anscombe [2012-13 and 2013-14]; Kiss has only ever selected him in the second row four times, while picking him at blindside 23 times. Whatever about the [intentionally] nebulous coinage that constitute ‘powers that be’, it’s clear that, under Les Kiss’ authority, Henderson is a blindside.
On the other hand, of his 11 starts for Schmidt [over three years], nine of them have been at lock forward, with just two of them at blindside. Just as the selection pattern tells us that Kiss sees Henderson as a back row, it tells us that Schmidt sees him as a second row.
You Say Second Row, I Say Backrow – Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off. No, Let’s Call It Second Row. I Get To Decide.
Examining the situation with the context of Schmidt and Kiss’s historically close working relationship in mind, and with the orbiting dictatorial presence of Nucifora a given, the difference of opinion between the two parties – and especially because it regards as fundamental a question as what the player’s best position is – is certainly remarkable.
Why is a player widely regarded as one of Ireland’s first choice second rows consistently selected in the ‘wrong’ position by his province? Seeing him line out in the No6 jersey for Ulster this season – and especially seeing him at No6 with Robbie Diack in the No5 jersey, as happened against Connacht in October – has been a perplexing sight in what has been an increasingly selectorially authoritarian regime under David Nucifora. Schmidt sees him as a second row, and if Schmidt needs something done, Nucifora does it.
One doesn’t have to leave Ulster to find a working example: Schmidt wanted Jared Payne to play in the centre so, despite Ulster having a plethora of quality homegrown centre options, viz. Olding, Marshall, Cave and McCloskey, Payne was moved from fullback to centre. As a recompense, Ulster got the okay to sign Charles Piutau.
Huffed And Puffed And Did His Hammer
While we’ve made a plausible argument that Henderson’s rather halting progress in recent years has been down to the decade-old conflict between provincial and national coaching set-ups, The Mole has to admit – despite this wonderful house of cards he has constructed – that his litany of injuries has been a more significant issue than corporate loggerheads.
Henderson was unavailable for selection for the first two of Ireland’s four tests this November due to a shoulder injury suffered against Exeter. Before this most recent injury, he missed the guts of four months [and the entire Six Nations campaign] last season because of a badly torn hamstring [his interview with Thornley on the subject is well worth a read]; before that, he missed the first half of the 2014-15 season recovering from hip surgery.
If durability isn’t a skill per se, it sure as hell is a virtue.
And The Crowd Goes Wild
In his Man of the Match performance against Canada, Ultan Dillane was outstanding in the loose, but The Mole expected that given his performances off the bench to date. He has been able to impact against the most physical teams in the world, England and South Africa, so it was absolutely no surprise that he was able to do it against a team of part-timers.As far as set-piece presence is concerned, there was nothing to report. He was playing in tandem with the smallest lock Ireland have capped in the pro era, the 193cm/110kg Billy Holland, and when you examine their respective efforts at the set-pieces – a key element of a front five player’s role, no matter the tactics or strategy adopted in the wider game – Holland did the vast majority of the heavy lifting.
There wasn’t a single throw to the Connacht second row, the tallest player in the Irish pack, in the lineout all day, while Holland took at least half-a-dozen. Dillane scrummaged in the easier slot behind the loosehead with Holland on the right, even though the former has 5kg on the latter. With regards to restarts, he didn’t contest any of our kicks as either a chaser or first-up hitter; and he was put in the least exposed position on their restarts, never coming close to receiving the ball. Given the nature of the analysis work done by the Irish staff, this had all the hallmarks of being intentional rather than accidental.
With an eight year age gap and a 100+ difference in the number of pro matches they have competed in, it may be a relatively meaningless conceit to point out that, on the test stage at least, Dillane was actually the senior partner: it was his seventh cap, and Holland’s first. Still, there it is.
If that comes across as a negative appraisal, it’s because we’re being contrarians. Nevertheless, it’s all fact-based stuff. We’re actually big fans of Dillane at Mole Towers. He plays with mad gusto and seems like a great lad, and he has intangible qualities that people respond too. We’re not massive men for devotees of De Big Run though, and maybe veer too far in being dismissive of popular opinion and flavour of the month hyperbole.
Dillane is obviously making progress and widening his skill set year-on-year and for a second row, he’s still a kid – he just turned 23 in November. However, at the time of writing he has not shown at test level that his set-piece contributions are of the same standard as the three players he’s seriously competing against: Toner, Henderson and Ryan.
You can see for Connacht this season that Lam has asked him to take on the role that Aly Muldowney used to play for them – the job that originated in the New Zealand system and has been taken to its peak by Brodie Retallick, that of a ball-handling second row who acts as a distributor in the middle of the pitch.
It’s understandably taking a little time for him to become accustomed to making a plethora of midfield decisions, because a lot of ball goes through your hands in that role for Connacht – Muldowney had 21 touches [13 passes/8 runs] in the Pro12 semi-final win over Glasgow last season and a whopping 33 against Leinster in the final [19 passes/14 carries]. However, while progress has been relatively slow – and to push an old saw, anything that’s worth achieving is hard to do – figuring out that role and its additional requirements at this early stage of his professional career will stand him in very good stead as his career progresses.
He Picked Up The Ball And Ran
Comments sections tend to skirt a loop of the disheartening and inane, with the occasionally memorable locus. For two simple reasons – its author’s utter belief in his cause, and its complete imbecility – one argument from about six or seven years ago on an American Football statistics blog has stayed with me, even though I can’t even begin to remember the subject of the article itself. That’s only relevant because we like to link to our sources here on The Daily Mole, and it pains me to say that I didn’t bookmark it at the time. In any case, the basis of debate concerned the nomenclature of the game itself. The contributor in question firmly and peremptorily denied that American Football had any roots outside America; that it had evolved entirely separately from rugby football, and indeed any other football; and the fact that it was called American Football was because it was played ‘on the feet’ with ‘a ball’. I shit you not.
Leaving aside the argument that all field sports are played ‘on the feet’ and with ‘a ball’ and that by this naming doctrine, golf would be called Scottish Football, what brought this memorably specious argument to mind was Donnacha Ryan’s long road back from what looked like a career-ending foot injury.
Foot injuries tend to be superficially equated them with hand injuries – digital or other small-bone injuries to an extremity – by practically everybody except those who have suffered them. That’s understandable. The foot is to the leg what the hand is to the arm.
A sizeable portion of rugby fans have seen the gruesome digital compound fractures suffered by James Horwill or Bakkies Botha and seen back on the pitch within a month, or read the story about ‘Red’ Conway having his broken finger amputated so that he could tour South Africa with the All Blacks; when they read about Simon Geoghegan retiring from a toe injury or Donnacha Ryan on the verge of doing the same almost twenty years later, it can be hard to comprehend why exactly these lads are pushed to the verge of quitting the game by tarsals, phalanges and the rest of the gristle and tissue that make up our bipeds. Why don’t they just tape it up?
They Shoot Horses
Well, you don’t run on your hands. In the inimitable style of m’learned friend, I can confidently state that Rugby Football is known as such because it was invented in Rugby, uses a ball and is played on the feet.
If a horse breaks its leg, they tend to try and do him in on the spot because it’ll only bloody torture him until they have to do it at a later stage. To this point, it may have read like I’m advocating euthanasia for all rugby-playing victims of foot injuries here; I hope nobody will jump to the conclusion that The Mole thinks Donnacha Ryan should have had a blanket put over his head at the side of the race-course before the merciful deed was done. I’m merely trying to make the [less controversial] point that said foot injuries can a] be more serious and debilitating than they initially sound; and b] certainly demand greater recognition and less derision.
The amount of force exerted through the foot can be, both literally and metaphorically, staggering. An old and often-quoted academic study “reported data from a single subject showing an initial peak of 5.5 BW [bodyweight] at ground contact followed by a second peak of 3 BW in mid support.”
If you’re the 114kg Donnacha Ryan, that means you’re putting the equivalent of well over 620kg of mass through the small bones and complicated layers of tendons and muscles with every foot strike of a sprint, and receiving the equivalent in ground reaction force … and running for him wasn’t the big problem. As with Leinster’s South African tighthead C.J. van der Linde before him, the deal-breaking issue was scrummaging. The more you read about Ryan’s sesamoiditis, the more you wonder how, given the nature of scrummaging, the general and specific postures adopted by locks in particular, and the enormous amount of force exerted through the joint of the big toe and the ball of the foot in those players, more of them don’t fall foul of this injury.
Considering that Toner is the dominant partner in the two key in-game set-pieces, both calling the lineouts and scrummaging on the right of the partnership, there’s an argument that the Ryan/Toner second row pairing isn’t an optimal partnership. Ryan can hold up his end of things in the set-pieces, but he has the less important role in each. He’s not a bulldozer behind the tighthead like Bakkies, nor is he a consummate footballing lock in the mould of John Eales, Brodie Retallick or Victor Matfield.
However, he is tough and, with it, understated. He adds a hard edge to the Irish pack without leaking penalties or making a big deal of things. They’re qualities that you look for in a second row and characteristics that must have stood him in good stead through what can only have been a frustrating and particularly tedious period of rehabilitation. Furthermore, he’s a player who seems to be well-respected across all the provincial fanbases: that’s not something that you can say about all Irish internationals.
There’s no doubt that Toner is a key part of Schmidt’s Irish team. Once Schmidt took charge in November 2013, Toner was in. He hasn’t been out since, starting 32 of Ireland’s 39 test matches under the New Zealander’s watch. It’s the other spot that is up for grabs.
When The Mole talks about Dillane’s ‘potential’, it is his potential to be an outstanding international second row that I’m referring to, not just a vague reference to his obvious physical ability. NFL Hall of Fame Coach Bill Parcells once bluntly observed that ‘potential means you haven’t done anything yet’, and while that would be an undeservedly harsh assessment of Dillane, I think he’s the type of diligent, open-minded player that might react well to that not-particularly-helpful-but-not-entirely-inaccurate judgment.
While we have previously referenced his relative youth for the position as a positive, there are test second rows in the northern hemisphere who are younger and better than him: Maro Itoje and Jonny Gray. Those lads are competing with Brodie Retallick, Alun-Wyn Jones, Sam Whitelock and Eben Etzebeth to be in top five second rows in the world. Dillane is clearly not at their level yet, nor is he at the level below, where Launchbury, Toner, Lavanini and Lood de Jager make up the lower half of a putative Top 10 Locks. Dillane has some way to go to be regarded as an equal in that company.
Lam is working on building his all-court game with Connacht, but I’m not at all convinced that his set-piece skills are at the level they need to be at to be a central figure in a strong, bullying pack. In The Mole’s book, he is very much a work-in-progress.
Iain Henderson is only a part-time lover of a second row: he’s constantly doing the dirt on the position once Joe Schmidt’s back is turned. Between his significant injury problems and shuttling between two positions, Henderson has failed to nail down a starting place in the Irish pack, despite being perhaps the most physically gifted back-five forward in Ireland. It’s a surprising reality. Indeed, he’s only started one Six Nations game since making his test debut more than four years ago.
Would it be inaccurate to label Henderson as a fringe player? He’s still at the point where he has more appearances off the bench than starts to his name. Henderson hasn’t really been able to put together the sort of big-time performance that Devin Toner produced as the heart of a seven man pack and Man of the Match in the first test in South Africa.
However, Toner’s permanent switch to the right-hand [tight-head] side of the scrummaging partnership – the biggest change to his game since Paul O’Connell’s retirement, and a canny move which should serve to secure his place in the side for the foreseeable future – may also play out well for Henderson. With Toner installed as a set-piece colossus, and expected to be the dominant partner at both scrum and lineout, his partner has somewhat more freedom to wreak havoc around the pitch and make a habit of forcing issues. That might just be the part Henderson was born to play, baby.
His selection in recent weeks in the Ulster second row might signal a change of mind from Kiss with regards to his future, and might be the first step in opening up that Itoje-equivalent role to Henderson … or it might be Joe Schmidt flexing his muscles. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s Column A or Column B; the fact is that it has happened. From The Mole’s viewpoint, it seems readily apparent that the second row is going to be Henderson’s long term position, and that it’s the player himself who will have to do most of the figuring out about how to bring the best out of his immense physical gifts in that role.
No Profile, No Quarter
On current form though, and especially in the light of his recent performances for Munster and Ireland, Ryan is doing more than enough to keep Henderson on the bench for Ireland with regards to the first game of the 2017 Six Nations. Ryan’s autumn form – both seasonal and career – has seen him produce some of the best rugby of his life. He’s at his ruthless best, particularly able to impose himself in the Greco-Roman work of mauling and choke tackling and the grim battering ram contests of goal-line rucks.
With that said, he’s not the key figure in the Irish row: that’s Toner’s mark.
At 30 years of age, and with 191 appearances for Leinster and 42 caps for Ireland to his name, the Moynalvey giant is clearly within touching distance of a couple of provincial and national milestones. More to the point, he’s in the prime of his career – both in individual terms as a player performing to a high standard on a consistent basis, and as a central piece in the construction of the Irish national team. It may sound optimistic, but the Mole could see him filling this role for another four or five years; certainly into and through the next World Cup.
In terms of his quiet public persona, his constitution and durability, his keystone value to the team and his phenomenal physical size, The Mole sees Toner building a substantial comparison to John Hayes, Ireland’s first test centurion.
These big, strong, slow guys don’t tend to injure themselves too often by changing direction quickly or tearing muscles at full gallop and, because they’re so big and strong, it’s difficult enough for other people to injure them. As we’ve written above: durability may not be a skill, but it’s an asset. Toner’s exemplary fitness record, his enormous size and the fact that he functions as the pre-eminent scrummager and lineout artist in Ireland’s second row stocks could, and should, lead to a long and effective career deep into his thirties, in much the same manner as other noted big men Simon Shaw [retired at 39], Nathan Hines [retired at 38] and Bakkies Botha [retired at 36].
The comparison with Hayes has a secondary thread to it, an underlying one. Hayes is [rightly] lionised now, but this correspondent remembers when he was singled out for criticism almost on a per-match basis on national broadcasts as somebody who was too tall for the job, who couldn’t scrummage properly, who would never be good enough at the basic task of his position etc. There was a relatively long period of Hayes’ career when constant criticism from some vocal segments of the rugby media – whether it was pointed personal attacks, or just undervaluing his contribution through ignorance – adversely coloured the average Irish rugby supporter’s view of his worth to the team.
Toner has come through the equivalent period, and while he doesn’t get the same fawning attention that some other members of the pack seem to attract, he has silenced the perennial carpers, the know-nothings with big mouths. It’s not a huge reward, but it’s a hell of a hard thing to do, and he has done it the hard way.