TOKYO – Ireland begin their World Cup campaign against Scotland on Sunday with their fair share of questions to answer, chief among them how their lineout will fare without its chief operator for the last four years.
Coach Joe Schmidt surprised many when he could not find room in his 31-man squad for Devin Toner, favouring the greater versatility offered by Tadhg Beirne and scrummaging power of the relatively untested Jean Kleyn when it came down to his final second row squad choices.
At 2.10 metres (6ft-11in) tall, it is obvious what Ireland sacrifice without Toner but perhaps more crucially than his ability to win the ball and preoccupy opposing jumpers is the fact that the experienced Leinster man has called Ireland’s lineouts since Paul O’Connell retired after the last World Cup.
“The caller is huge,” former Ireland hooker Bernard Jackman, who threw to Toner when the lock was starting out at Leinster, told Reuters in a telephone interview. “Every hooker has a favourite throw, they’ve a throw they like to put in early to settle them, they’ve a throw they like to go to if they’ve lost a couple.
“The hooker needs absolute confidence in the lineout caller and the most important thing, as a hooker, is that your caller will stay calm and work things out. Certainly for me, when I played with Leo Cullen (at Leinster), I knew that he was never going to get flustered and I know guys who played with Paul O’Connell on a regular basis felt the exact same.
“Someone like Steve Borthwick was exceptional in that regard as well. Those fellows all had massive experience in calling lineouts. Everyone thinks that James Ryan can do a good job and I’m one of those.
“He’s a very bright guy but he’s very much being thrown in the deep end.”
Ryan, a fast learner in every facet of the game in a young and brilliant career so far, appeared to settle into the new role in the final World Cup warmup win against Wales after a couple of errant early throws.
While Ireland’s lineout badly misfired in the record drubbing by England a couple of weeks before that, forwards coach Simon Easterby said this week that they had tried out a few different ideas in that game and were not concerned.
Ireland’s lineout options could also depend on how Schmidt opts to match up.
With Ireland bullied at times in a disappointing Six Nations, he may feel Kleyn’s brawn is needed against bigger packs. Not the most agile of jumpers, that would put even more responsibility on Ryan’s shoulders.
Jackman says the lineout is particularly key to Ireland’s prospects as it is the platform Schmidt has used most effectively to build the kind of pinpoint attacking plays that landed a Grand Slam in 2018 and two victories over World champions New Zealand in their last three meetings.
“It’s chicken and egg. Our lineout maul hasn’t looked like a real weapon recently either so if you’re a defensive coach and think we can stop them if they catch it, then you get more focus up in the air,” the former Grenoble coach said.
“Whereas if Ireland went to the World Cup with a devastating maul, teams would have to decide how much priority they wanted to put into the aerial battles.
“I think Scotland for sure will have a crack off us and if we faced South Africa in a quarter-final, they would back themselves to be able to stop it so I think we’re going to face serious pressure at lineout time.”
While Toner’s omission has stoked some debate back in Ireland, it also fair to ask how much the 33-year-old would have featured given Schmidt’s clear identification of a role for Kleyn and the likely first choice and most dynamic pairing of Ryan and Ulster’s Iain Henderson.
The key question then is whether Ireland have had sufficient time to move on from their reliable lineout lieutenant in the buildup to Japan.
“If it doesn’t go well and there is an inquiry as such into why, the fact that they have allowed us to become very reliant on Devin will certainly be seen as a strategic error,” Jackman said.