Rory Best has admitted losing Devin Toner to an ankle injury for the rest of the Six Nations is a “massive” blow to Ireland.
Leinster lock Toner has undergone ankle surgery for the issue suffered in Ireland’s 32-20 loss to England last weekend and will be sidelined for two months.
The dependable second-row has so far only missed six Test matches since Joe Schmidt took charge of Ireland in 2013, featuring more regularly than any other player under the Kiwi’s stewardship.
Ireland’s defence of their 2018 title took a hefty hit with that punishing loss to England in Dublin, and hooker Best has admitted Toner’s extended absence is another dent.
“Look it’s massive, he’s been a big part of what we’ve created here over the last while,” said Best.
“He’s a great player, and over the last 18 months, two years, he’s probably played some of the best Rugby of his career.
“So to lose a player like that, and the intellectual property he brings around the lineout.
“You all know him, the calmness he has is a great thing to have around the team environment. So he’ll be a loss, as any great player is.”
Toner is Ireland’s third frontline lock injury in this tournament, with British and Irish Lion Iain Henderson missing with a finger complaint and Munster powerhouse Tadhg Beirne out with knee trouble.
Ireland’s much-vaunted strength in depth at lock has taken something of hammering, though the fast-rising James Ryan remains in situ and will be partnered in Scotland on Saturday by Quinn Roux.
Connacht’s Roux will share the burden of calling Ireland’s lineouts at Murrayfield, while provincial team-mate Ultan Dillane can offer pace and power on the ball from the bench.
“When these things happen it gives an opportunity to somebody else,” said Best.
“I thought Quinn Roux was great when he came on against England, he showed a lot of physicality, he’s been playing very well for Connacht.
“This is a massive opportunity for him, and also a big opportunity for James Ryan to step up, and also lead in that second-row.”
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Jacob Stockdale has insisted Ireland have never considered themselves the world’s best Test team.
The Ulster wing has admitted he never wants to be on the receiving end of another hiding like England dished out to Joe Schmidt’s men in Dublin last weekend.
Stockdale had enjoyed a near-fairytale Test career until Saturday’s 32-20 Six Nations loss to England, where the stunning form that carried Ireland to last year’s Grand Slam and a victory over New Zealand came to an abrupt halt.
Now the 22-year-old wing has been at pains to point out the All Blacks installed Ireland as the world’s best team following the 16-9 November victory – and not anyone in head coach Schmidt’s camp.
Asked if there would be merit in reiterating that Ireland never branded themselves the world’s best, Stockdale replied: “Yes exactly; look we know we’re a good side and we want to make sure we don’t let ourselves down on the pitch.
“But we know we’re not the finished product, and I don’t think anybody here has ever claimed us to be.
“So we’re still trying to work and still trying to improve. You learn probably more from losing than you do winning. For me personally that’s a massive point – I don’t want that to ever happen again.
“So I’m going to work twice as hard to make sure it doesn’t. So there’s a lot to learn from last week and a lot to be excited about going forward.”
Wily New Zealand coach Steve Hansen hailed Ireland as the world’s best team after Schmidt’s men toppled the back-to-back world champion All Blacks in Dublin in the autumn.
Schmidt quickly batted aside that assertion, with his side still sat second in World Rugby’s official rankings – well aware Hansen was simply trying to shift some pressure in Ireland’s direction.
Stockdale assumed responsibility for Elliot Daly’s try in the England loss, where he fumbled a kick in behind to allow the Wasps flier to dot down.
The Lisburn native admitted to being stung by the defeat, but pledged that Ireland will refocus quickly – starting with Saturday’s trip to Murrayfield to face Scotland.
Stockdale has made a habit of picking off wide passes for interception tries, but admitted he can ill afford to take any risks given Scotland fly-half Finn Russell’s playmaking talents.
“It’s a tough one to analyse yourself when you’ve lost and you feel like nothing you did was good enough,” said Stockdale.
“Daly’s try where I tried to collect it and it bounced out of my hands, I was really disappointed with that. I felt like I could have collected it and obviously stopped that try.
“Outside of that I wouldn’t say I was happy with my performance but I thought there was a lot of good with what I did.
“I think once you start going looking for intercepts it can be a pretty dangerous game, because Finn Russell is a very smart player, he’s very intuitive.
“He’s definitely the kind of player that if he sees you going for it, he’ll let you think you’re going to have it, and then he’ll put the ball past you, or in behind you.
“You just can’t go chasing intercepts, and you just have to, hopefully, grab the one that becomes available throughout the game.
“For me it’s just about making sure that I defend well, connect with the backline and the forwards around me. And then if the opportunity arises then I definitely plan on taking it.”
Joe Schmidt has hit back at critics of his tactics by insisting Ireland boast a “very varied game” despite their comprehensive Six Nations loss to England.
A host of pundits accused Ireland of lacking a Plan B in the wake of last weekend’s 32-20 physical battering at the hands of England.
But Schmidt has moved to defend his approach ahead of their trip to Murrayfield to face Scotland on Saturday.
“I’d like to see how they’d describe our Plan A to be honest,” said head coach Schmidt, responding to accusations Ireland’s gameplan is limited.
“I do think I always get a lot of advice, there wouldn’t be too many weeks go by that I don’t get a letter, suggesting somebody play there, or suggesting a set play or suggesting something.
“And that’s when we’re winning. So when you lose you get at least three letters.
“And so you can expect people to be saying a lot about how we play, and what Plan A, B, C or D look like.
“So I’m not sure how they summarise Plan A, because I think we have a very varied game.
“We play strong off set-piece, we play a varied kicking game, we play with a varied attacking game. And we try to vary our defensive game.
“So I guess I’ll leave them to do their analysis, and we’ll keep analysing what we’re doing, and trying to improve.”
Munster’s Chris Farrell will make his first Test start in almost a year when Ireland face Scotland this weekend, with Robbie Henshaw ruled out through a dead leg.
Rob Kearney has returned at full-back after the experiment of moving Henshaw to 15 to face England failed amid Ireland’s heavy defeat in Dublin.
Quinn Roux will partner James Ryan at lock, with Devin Toner having joined Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne on the injury list.
Henshaw’s injury blow, coupled with Garry Ringrose’s hamstring problem, has opened the door for Munster’s battering-ram centre Farrell to win his fourth cap.
Farrell has struggled with a string of knee injuries since his last Test appearance, a man of the match showing in Ireland’s 37-27 Six Nations victory over Wales in February 2018.
“Robbie has a dead leg and just hasn’t recovered in time,” said Schmidt.
“It’s just a bit of aggravation after having a knock. It’s a knock on top of a knock.
“It does make it difficult. The problem is he maybe could have played. But if you get another bump on it it debilitates you quickly, and then you have to make another change.”
When asked if Kearney would have returned at full-back even had Henshaw been fit, Schmidt added: “Probably once Garry Ringrose was ruled out it was going to be trying to keep a little continuity as best we can and get as cohesive as we can in a short space of time.
“You’ve got Chris Farrell sitting in the wings, massively motivated to do his best. So it’s a great opportunity to get him in and give him a run.
“We’re just going to have to forge ahead, but it’s an exciting opportunity to give Chris Farrell a run against Scotland. He’s coming back to form after a long lay-off.”