Rory Keane reports from Johannesburg

IT WAS A tender moment after 80 minutes of brutality in Cape Town.

Having played like a man possessed throughout Ireland’s victory over South Africa at Newlands on Saturday, Devin Toner rightfully received the man-of-the-match award before paying tribute to his father, Peter, who passed away in the week leading up to the Guinness Pro12 final at the end of May.

Pointing to ​the sky, he simply said: “I just want to say, that’s for dad”. From great loss came great achievement for Toner. It’s been a tough time for the Ireland lock but there was never any question that he would forego the opportunity to tour South Africa this summer.

“Not really, to be honest. It happened a week before we were due to leave and the whole family were saying: ‘You’re definitely still going’, so I didn’t really have an option to be honest. They were telling me I was going,” said the Leinster man.

“Then, it was hard for me to get my head around it at the start, getting back into things and then at the start of the week, I wasn’t feeling great but then as we started getting closer to the Test match, it kind of clicked that this was obviously a massive Test match, with history to be made.

“It was there for us, so I kind of got my head around it and started getting up for it. The longer the week went on, the closer we got to the game, the more I got into it.”

Certainly, being around his team-mates again was a good distraction during such a difficult time. The spirit and camaraderie in this current Ireland set-up was there for all to see last weekend.

“Yeah, 100%. It’s great,” said Toner. “It was actually good to have a distraction. You had to come straight into camp and get your head around calls. Obviously with so many lads around, you’re talking and it’s a bit of a distraction. But all the lads were so supportive. They were all down at the funeral as well.”

Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Four days have passed since Joe Schmidt’s side stunned the Springboks with 14 men and the result still beggars belief. Without CJ Stander for the best part of an hour, and Robbie Henshaw for a crucial seven-minute period before half-time, Ireland battened the hatches and held on for dear life while showing plenty of guile when the attacking opportunities came their way.

Not many locks outshine Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager at Test level, but that’s how good Toner was last time out.

“Yeah. I think everyone dug deep and did what they had to do,” the 29-year-old explained. At a scrum meeting yesterday, Feeky asked, what was the first thing in your head when CJ went off? It was a scrum meeting, so everyone was thinking of scrums, so (we said) ‘Who’s going to come in on the flank?’ I was thinking of the lineout! ‘Who’s going to be in the six-man or the five-man? What are we doing here?’

“We had to shorten the lineout and it affects your lineout defence as well so we had to get our head around that as well but thankfully it worked out.”

Toner was linking up with Iain Henderson for the first time since Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final defeat against Argentina back in October. The pair worked beautifully in tandem against their much-vaunted opponents, with Toner marshalling the lineouts and restarts while Henderson produced his usual mix of manic aggression and mutant strength.

“It was good getting back together with him because he’s an awesome player,” Toner explained. “He’s ridiculous, like. There was one enjoyable one actually. There was a kick-chase, and they were coming back and it was me and Hendy who just wrapped a fella up.

“​It was funny because we had him and then we were talking to each other. ‘We’re not going to let him go. We’re not going to let him go’. I really enjoy playing with Hendy, and I think everyone does to be honest.”

Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

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Considering the opposition​​, the venue, the injury list and the circumstances, it has to be up there as one of the greatest sever Irish rugby victories?

“A one-off win? Hmm… not really to be honest. Obviously you’ve got the Six Nations wins, and they’re part of the Six Nations. The last time we beat South Africa at home, that was a big win for me. I suppose it’s another step coming to their park and beating them here, so yeah, it’s up there.”

It’s shaping up to be quite the eventful summer for Toner, who will turn 30 on 29 June before marrying his fiancée, and fellow Meath native, Mary Scott two days later. Here’s hoping he’ll be returning as a member of the first Ireland team to clinch a Test series on South African soil. Before all that, though, there is the small matter of this impending second Test at Ellis Park this weekend.

“Before the tour, one win would have been enough but now we’re really going to go after it. We have the bit between our teeth and we’re really going to go after it this week,” Toner added.

“It would be unbelievable if we did it. Unbelievable. It’s obviously going to be a huge challenge for us. It’s obviously possible and we always knew it was possible, and we’re going to do everything we can to do it.”

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