Soaring towards new heights
It's taken a while but Devin Toner is finally fulfilling his potential, says Brendan Fanning
Hands up if you were not in the camp that had bought tickets to the Devin Toner, Ireland Stalwart, show. Keep them raised if somewhere around his sixth season for Leinster -- the nine-month gap between Nathan Hines leaving for France and Brad Thorn arriving from Japan -- you thought that tickets to the Devin Toner, Ireland Stalwart, show were being refunded.
Chances are there are quite a few of you with your hands in the air. It seemed reasonable, given that in a fortnight it will be eight years since he made his debut against the now-defunct Border Reivers, that the man himself might have been thinking along the same lines.
By any standards it has been a long apprenticeship. A whopping 138 games for Leinster have passed since January 2006 and this afternoon, on what will be a heavy pitch in Castres, yet only now is Toner secure as a first pick. The giant second row is not wild about his portrayal as an overnight success after eight-and-a-half seasons.
"I don't know," he says, politely but with no enthusiasm for the idea. "I wouldn't like to say or think so, because this is my eighth year in the squad and I think I've been building all the time."
It's not worth labouring the point, but it's inconceivable that he or the clients saw the build taking that long before the roof eventually went on. Even if it goes all the way up to the skyscraping height of 6' 10". Take for example Leinster's breakthrough season 2008/09. When Leo Cullen dislocated his shoulder in the pool game at home against Wasps, on came the 22-year-old Toner and did a very good job. He started four games in Europe that season. It was a stat however that wouldn't be matched again until this term, some five years later.
In fairness to him, the arrival of the likes of Hines and Thorn were as tighthead locks, while Toner's trade was being plied on the other side of the scrum in the shadow of Cullen. That said, he has never exactly been a layer of waste around the field, no matter what side of the scrum he was filling. As ringing endorsements go, Joe Schmidt's search overseas didn't make a happy sound in Toner's head.
"It was a little bit hard to think that they didn't have confidence in me but I think in the long term he (Thorn) had such an impact on the whole squad it was good in hindsight," Toner says. "I did learn a lot from his work ethic as well. It was good for the squad as we went on to win the Heineken Cup as well. Obviously I was disappointed at the time but, looking back on it, it wasn't too bad."
Thorn was revered in New Zealand, especially for a combative core that seemed to develop despite his advancing years. The message for Toner was fairly straightforward: he needed to toughen up a bit.
"You need to bully your opponents basically and get on top of them and have a physical edge," he accepts. "Those first couple of years that I started I wasn't getting on top of them. Just in the last couple of years I've realised that you do have to get the physical mindset right going into a game of just being more aggressive. It's not that I'm going into a ruck thinking: 'I'm going to be more aggressive here'. It's a whole mindset and a whole game really."
He didn't exactly get tutorials from Thorn, or indeed Nathan Hines, whose skill range comprised a bit of biff with an ability to madden opponents by tying them down with whatever limb is available, and then he could provide lovely, soft hands when the occasion demanded. But Toner was close enough to him for long enough -- and to Leo Cullen who is fairly adept in the same departments -- to catch some of the overflow.
Toner's shortcomings on the physical front saw him get a tepid response in the media when he first featured in the Ireland team, in the autumn series of 2010. He was one of four locks used over the three games -- along with Donncha O'Callaghan, Mick O'Driscoll and Donnacha Ryan -- which didn't include the injured Paul O'Connell. It wasn't what you would class as a breakthrough. The reality was that privately some of Toner's team-mates in Leinster were waiting for him to deliver for province before country.
The first signs of that came two seasons ago. There was a lovely moment in the Bath game in Lansdowne Road when he delivered a Hinesesque offload to Rob Kearney, to maintain Leinster's momentum on a sweeping move. It was one of the talking points of the day. By the time they got to the final, five games later, he was scheduled to come on at the tail end for Leo Cullen. Then Dan Tuohy's try confirmed there was some life left in the underdogs, and Toner was introduced early. He made an immediate difference. This is not always easy for someone of his height. Carrying is something he does well for someone so tall, and stooping to conquer at the ruck is another task he has coped with admirably.
"I've worked a lot with Jono Gibbes and he's been a huge factor in my development," he says. "I've tried to work on my aggression. Obviously my body-height at ruck-time and mauls and scrums -- I'm always working on that. It's always going to be a bugbear of mine to get down low. One of the main things is the experience I've gained from playing in big games. Learning how to run a lineout has obviously stood to me as well."
The culmination was in the November Test against the All Blacks. You came away from Lansdowne Road two months ago wondering could Devin Toner ever be that good again. In an outstanding team performance, he was terrific. Can he possibly go forward from that?
"Yeah, yeah," he says, maintaining that it is the benchmark now for everyone who played that day. If so then Ireland supporters need to brace themselves for we may well see very few of that group reach the same heights again. To be close to it consistently would be an achievement.
For example, this afternoon in Castres will feel like a different planet. Leinster will be under the cosh from a home team who were worth far more than the seven points they scored at the RDS in October. When they played in the back-to-back games in 2008/09, Toner got the man of the match award in the landslide win at home. A week later, it was a different story.
"It was one of the first Heineken Cup games I started," he says. "Horrible weather, freezing cold, and it was just not nice to play in at all. Coming off the pitch I was really down -- one of the worst Heineken Cup games I played in."
If it seems like a long time ago it's because it was. Toner now is transformed in the Leinster set-up, a lineout leader, and generally a man supporters and coaches look to for a big performance.
"Yeah, mentally it's very good," he says. "The confidence you get from it is massive. You know that the coaches are backing you and if the coaches have confidence in you, it spurs you on. So I think that's built pretty well for me, especially at the end of last season, where I started the two finals. That gave me a boost."
Despite the miles already clocked up, at 27 he is now hitting his prime and with lots of road still to be travelled and goals to be reached.
"Fingers crossed. I am and I am not (long-term goal driven). I'd go into a year and say what I'm going to do for the year but I wouldn't look into three or four years' time. I'm a real play it as it goes thing. Last year I was trying to nail down a starting position with Leinster and it worked out.
"I feel in a pretty good place, especially after the November as well starting the three games. I suppose I got a feel for it because this was the first time I had Christmas off in about eight years. It's the first time I have had a break. Feeling in a pretty good place."
By the time we get to the World Cup next year, tickets to the Devin Toner, Ireland Stalwart, show, might be in short supply.
Castres: B Dulin; R Grosso, S Bai, R Lamerat, M Evans; R Tales (c), C Garcia; Ya Forestier, M-A Rallier, K Wihongi, R Gray, C Samson, M Babillot, I Diarra, P Faasalele. Replacements: Br Mach, M Lazar, A Peikrishvili, B Desroche, Y Caballero, J Tomas, D Kirkpatrick, M Garvey.
Leinster: R Kearney; D Kearney, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Gopperth, E Reddan; J McGrath, S Cronin, M Ross, D Toner, M McCarthy, K McLaughlin, J Murphy, J Heaslip. (c). Replacements: A Dundon, J O'Connell, M Moore, L Cullen, S Jennings, I Boss, I Madigan, Z Kirchner.
Castres v Leinster,
Sky Sports 2 Red Button, 12.45