Sunday 26 January 2020

Durable Toner still standing tall as he targets a quarter-final berth

Leinster's Devin Toner Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Leinster's Devin Toner Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Time, perhaps, to recognise not how tall Devin Toner stands but actually for how long he has stood tall for.

Remarkably, he is already well into his 11th season in Leinster blue; perhaps that is also a reflection on the amount of time it took for him to really mature into an authoritative international and rounded human being.

"I'm not sure what's the difference," he muses laconically of his current status as a titan in both Ireland's and Leinster's second-row engine room.

"Less hair, getting older! The older you get the more experience you have.

"You are always not overly happy with how you are playing. I need to do more work on tackle technique area."

Always striving for more, to eke out every ounce from the natural talent he undoubtedly possesses but which took its time to become a familiar comfort to his erstwhile Leinster boss and current international coach, Joe Schmidt.

He didn't make his international bow until five years after he first made the breakthrough in provincial rugby but he has never looked back, compiling 35 Irish caps.

At Leinster, he is part of the furniture, a teak-tough operator in the tight five and, as he closes in on 200 appearances, he stands proudly at sixth in the list of the club's most enduring pros.

Jamie Heaslip sits atop the appearances chart on 221 and Toner, with 185 caps, is the most prolific player of those still currently playing; it stands to reason that, at only 30, he will inevitably hunt down all of Leo Cullen (219), Shane Jennings (205) and Shane Horgan (203).

By the time he links up with the Ireland squad bound for Chicago and the first of two dates with the All Blacks in November, only an injury will prevent him leap-frogging the great Brian O'Driscoll's 186 mark.

When he began his Leinster career a decade ago, he did so against a professional outfit (Border Reivers) that no longer exists in a venue (Donnybrook) no longer fit for purpose to stage Pro12 games.

The enduring Heaslip started that game too, as did Rob Kearney; a certain Jonathan Sexton was on the bench; current manager Guy Easterby started at scrum-half but everyone else on the team-sheet for that 62-14 romp watched by just over 4,000 paying punters has moved on.

A slew of second-row partners have packed down alongside him; the latest, Ian Nagle, a poster boy for how a sabbatical can revitalise one's career; the Meath man has been lucky, so far, not to have needed time out. "It wouldn't be for me," he suggests, "probably because I've never had a serious injury."

He featured in all three of Leinster's epoch-making Heineken Cup successes but didn't start any of them; these were the days when highly-paid imports, from Nathan Hines to Brad Thorn, aided the Irish side's route to success alongside a clutch of Grand Slam-winning stars.

Whether he will ever get another chance to start in a final is a moot point; Leinster's wipe-out in the pool stages last year dampened supporters' ardour, albeit it must be recalled that a season earlier they were a drop goal attempt away from reaching a fourth final.

"You can always look at the past," he says, sensing a renewal of confidence with a squad who are brimming in confidence and benefiting from the fresh coaching input of Stuart Lancaster.

"But, you want to keep your eye on what's happening now. We did underperform last year. We still have a lot of the same players.

"There are also a lot of new players coming in. There is a new squad, a new feeling. You've just got to play it as you see it, not look too much into the past.

"We've always liked being the underdog. We'd no excuses last season but we have a lot of confidence in the squad now.

"If we can get by under the radar, get a couple of wins under our belt, get out of our group and have a home quarter, everyone would have a lot of confidence going into it.

"There is a hugely positive mood inside the camp. Getting the win against Munster was huge.

"It's very positive. Hopefully, we can bring that into the weekend."

Toner's longevity will stand to him and his team as much as his skyscraping 6' 10" frame.

Irish Independent

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