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Saturday 24 August 2019

Not even Schmidt is bullet proof

Toner nearly cleared for full contact

Devin Toner at the announcement of leading energy supplier Energia’s official partnership with the Irish Rugby Football Union
Devin Toner at the announcement of leading energy supplier Energia’s official partnership with the Irish Rugby Football Union

No one will be immune from prosecution should 2019 go the same way as 2015.

Joe Schmidt's first shot at making history by taking Ireland to their first World Cup semi-final ran aground on the rock of an appalling injury list.

All other reasons or excuses were immaterial, even irrelevant.

The All Blacks would not have survived with the same numbers going down.

For Jonathan Sexton, Paul O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien read Dan Carter, Brodie Retallick, Jerome Kaino and Richie McCaw for starters.

The last four years have been used to blood and make ready a wider community of Ireland internationals.

The 2018 Grand Slam has been gathered along the way, giving this Ireland squad the vital know-how of winning a tournament under the microscope labelled 'intense pressure.'

All along, the goal has been to evolve a 'three-deep chart' of men in case of the injury history repeating itself in a game with few guarantees other than adversity is sure to appear.

There were further cautionary tales from how Noel McNamara's Ireland U20s were decimated and ultimately defeated by injury in the last two Junior World Cups.

More specifically, there was also a deep intake of breath when Devin Toner's knee gave way against Munster in the Guinness PRO14 semi-final last month.

Luckily, the "pop" the lock heard turned out to be nothing more serious than a Grade-2 medial ligament strain, translated as four to six weeks out in rugby language.

Schmidt is already preparing without opensides Sean O'Brien and Dan Leavy.

It would have been cruel and unusual punishment were his lineout leader Toner forced to give up on his dream even before the onset of Ireland's pre-season, which began last Monday week.

Schmidt will have meticulously laid out Plans A-to-Z ahead of the 'friendlies' that will line the route to Japan.

The Ireland coach is the primary driver and a consistent force for incremental improvement.

"He's been same old Joe, same intensity," shared Toner at the launch of a five-year sponsorship deal yesterday, making Energia the official energy partner of the IRFU.

Toner's quick glance back at the 2015 World Cup quarter-final dredged up an unwanted memory.

"A lot of that blame was on the players, it wasn't on Joe," he said.

"A lot of the players didn't really front up. I know I played crap that day. It's not all on Joe."

There is the contention out there that the knock-on effect of Schmidt's excellence does load a greater burden of responsibility onto the players.

They have the advantage of one of the best, if not the best, coach in the world.

The Moynalvey man has been in the game long enough to know that the shards of glass that splinter from failure cut everyone in sight

"I don't think anyone is bullet-proof, to be honest," added Toner.

"When something doesn't go well, the majority of the times, it's from individual errors, from people not being switched on.

"A lot of the times when you look back over a game that you have lost, it's because you don't stick to the system, or an individual error, or you are just not fronting up, or you are losing the physical battle, losing the little one on ones.

"The majority of time when you win it is because the players have performed well.

"There might be the odd one or two scenarios where something mightn't have worked in a lineout or we get caught out in a formation."

For now, the grind of pre-season has replaced the reflective period that has been the off-season.

It doesn't seem like nearly enough time for bodies to recover from what they have just been through.

"You never feel like you have enough of a break, to be honest," said the veteran lock.

"We had three weeks and now we're back in and we've another week off next week.

"They go quick and the weekends go quick as well. You are back in before you know it.

"It is the same with all pre-seasons with the amount of work you're doing, the amount of fitness you're doing.

"Before we know it, we will be playing the games as well."

Not long after, Ireland will leave for the Land of the Rising Sun, looking to go where no Irish team has gone before.

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