Saturday 23 September 2017

'We're desperate to produce the goods for Dev'

It’s a landmark occasion for the big Meath lock in the RDS and the entire squad is determned not to let Toner down

Rob Kearney being tackled by Dragons’ Ashton Hewitt during their opening PRO14 match. Photo: Sportfile
Rob Kearney being tackled by Dragons’ Ashton Hewitt during their opening PRO14 match. Photo: Sportfile
Senior coach Stuart Lancaster

Marcus Ó Buachalla

There aren't many players left in the current Leinster Rugby squad that can remember the Border Reivers as a club, even less so Devin Toner's debut against them in January 2006. But Rob Kearney can.

He had made his own debut earlier that season against the Ospreys - or Neath-Swansea Ospreys as they were known then - and by the time Leinster played the Reivers in January 2006, Kearney had 15 caps to his name.

Two young men, a 20-year-old Johnny Sexton and a 19-year-old Toner, made their debuts off the bench. But that's not the earliest memory Kearney has.

"No, I can go way back further. I was in Clongowes Wood College and Dev was in Castleknock College and we were due to play them in an under-14 or an under-15 game in Castleknock.

"So we were on the bus heading to Castleknock and everyone was talking about this fella. It was as if he was a myth, an urban legend, a superhero of some sort.

"The bus pulls in the gates and there was a basketball court inside the gates and sure enough there was the Castleknock squad of maybe 20 or so players warming up, but right in the middle of them was Dev. You couldn't miss him. You still can't!"

Kearney would become Toner's team-mate soon after with Ireland age-grade sides and in the Leinster Academy.

"Dev talks about taking to rugby late and Mick Quinn being a huge influence on him in school but when he did decide to focus on rugby and when he set his mind to it he was a very good player.

"His size just allowed him to break tackles at will. He may not have been the line-out general that he is today but he was still a very good operator.

"At underage level and in those early years he was very effective at how he went about his rugby, but then he had to change. To his enormous credit, he did that."

A quick look at Toner's statistics bears witness to this fact. He was a slow burner. Only 12 caps in his first three seasons in blue but then Jono Gibbes came in and the Toner story really took off.

"I think it's difficult for us to comprehend but for a man that size and used to carrying the ball upright, and breaking tackles with relative ease, suddenly he was coming up against really physical players, that had played for years and they were hitting him and stopping him.

"So Dev had to really work harder than any of us to work on the little things, little tweaks here and there in technique, in tackling, in carrying, in stepping, just because of his size.

"Jono worked Dev really hard but brought him on. But it wasn't easy. These are intricacies that us of a normal height, if you can call it that, just cannot comprehend but he put in that work himself and it's all down to him."

Kearney also saw a change when Toner broke on to the Irish scene in 2010 and he was introduced to a certain Munster man.

"I think Paul O'Connell came at the right time for Dev in the Ireland set-up. Paul took Dev under his wings in many ways and sometimes I think you can be lucky with your pairings and I think these two were lucky.

"They complemented each other massively and were a huge part of those Six Nations wins in 2014 and 2015. I think we saw some of the biggest development from Dev in those years and they definitely brought the best out of each other."

Kearney isn't too far off the double-century mark himself but while he may have had a head-start on Toner in that 2005/06 season, Toner has since caught up. Not just hugely skilful, a warrior as well.

"Two hundred caps for Leinster on Friday, he also won his 50th for Ireland during the summer. He is remarkably durable and rarely misses any games. If anything, more people have ended up in Santry because of him in training than the other way around!

"I doubt he even knows where the Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry is. He wouldn't know where to go for an x-ray if the docs sent him!"

Thankfully for Kearney, he hasn't had a trip to Santry in a while and he is feeling good.

"It was great to come through the Dragons game. We did well enough in patches but I think there was plenty there for us to improve on for the Cardiff Blues game. For me the challenge now is to get a run of games.

"It was January when I played my last competitive game before last Saturday so I'm just keen to play well and hopefully keep hold of that jersey because the competition inside is as fierce as ever."

The challenge on Friday for the whole Leinster team though is a Cardiff side smarting from an opening-day home loss to Edinburgh and how they counter that reaction.

"It's a funny one because they would have wanted hugely to start the season at home with a performance and a win and they didn't get it. So now all that energy and the focus will be on us and the RDS and bouncing back and they know they can do it here against us.

"Last season we only beat them by a point in the RDS and they had one chance in particular where they should have scored a try near the end.

"They didn't and we were able to sneak the win but the RDS will hold no fear for them now.

"For us, and we spoke about it in the changing room this week, it's about how do we deliver a performance for Dev and give him a positive experience from the night. That's up to the other 22 players to realise what's at stake."

Number

The older players also realise that it's about more than a number.

"Massively so. Only some players will be lucky enough to hit milestones at any club so to lead out your team on the occasion of your 200th cap, to do that at home in the RDS, is special.

"Some lads have done that away from home and while it is still a huge honour to lead out your team, the reaction isn't the same, it's not in front of your own family and friends. For others they might be selected on the bench for those milestones so again the opportunity passes them by completely.

"There are no guarantees in this sporting life, but we are all delighted for Dev that he will get this honour and it's up to us to back that up with a performance that ensures that he knows exactly what he as a player, and as a mate, means to us."

A chance too for the Leinster supporters to do exactly the same.

Irish Independent

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