Toner reaches for new heights
Crunch season for Leinster giant as he tries to cement his place as first choice
Even at 6' 10" Devin Toner hasn't always found it easy to hit the heights.
Now the second-row, who makes even six-footers appear Lilliputian, recognises that this season he must hit even greater heights to maintain his impressive elevation in the sport.
The long -- and short -- of it, is quite stark. It's time for Toner to grow up, as he himself acknowledges.
Even though he has already made his international debut and pocketed two Heineken Cup medals, this is the season Toner has identified as the time to establish himself firmly as his club's first choice.
"At the start of the season, I did look at it as one of the biggest seasons for me," says Toner. "Obviously, it came into focus with Nathan Hines gone. And then you had quality players coming in like Steven Sykes and Damien Browne -- and Leo Cullen is still there. So, I did look at it like a massive season for me when I started training."
Yesterday's unsurprising news that Leinster have off-loaded flop Ed O'Donoghue to Wasps, less than half-way through a three-year contract, indicates just how ruthless the European champions can be when it comes to identifying the next generation.
The London-born lock, who grew up in australia, is qualified for Ireland (his parents were Irish) and he earned a non-cap appearance against the Maori on the 2010 tour down under. However, he has palpably failed to make any impression on the Leinster coaching staff.
With Sykes currently injured, Leinster are clearly relying on the sky-scraping Toner to make an even more meaningful impact this season beside captain Leo Cullen, particularly given that large vacancy left by Hines.
This week, forwards coach Jono Gibbes outlined what he felt were the improvements in Toner's game that may indicate that the player's renewed focus is already reaping rewards.
"There are two things I've kind of seen from Dev really," says Gibbes. "He used the six weeks when the World Cup was on; he took on a strong leadership role and took command in certain areas.
"That was pretty impressive and since the other guys came back, I think he has continued to try to deliver key things for himself. His desire and drive have shown this. He has taken responsibility, taken on a bit of ownership for his performance. I think he's been playing well."
Another impressive performance against Glasgow in last Sunday's facile Heineken Cup win at the RDS franked that opinion, particularly in terms of Toner's confidence at line-out time and his improved work in contact and at the breakdown.
Given his inordinate height, he can often appear to resemble an ungainly giraffe slurping from an oasis when he tries to bend down low into contact or to clear out rucks. Stooping to conquer remains a priority.
"Well, I suppose it is the part of the game I've been trying to work on more, getting on the ball and trying to up my physicality," admits the player who has managed to fill out his beanpole frame to a pretty substantial 120kg.
"I did a good bit of work in the gym during the pre-season and I've been focusing on my diet a lot more. In the contact area, I'm trying to get lower and I think there's been some improvement there.
"The referees are looking on lads going off their feet at rucks. So, the difficulty for me is trying to get low, but also trying to stay on my feet. I'm trying to work as hard as I can to do that.
"I've been doing different drills with Greg (Feek, scrum coach) and Jono, different drills with bags, trying to ruck over in practice and getting the small improvements there.
But everyone's got to do it and it's about technique more than anything. No matter how tall or small you are, you need to stay on your feet and paint a positive picture for the referee," adds Toner.
Along with his older brother Daragh, Toner had been introduced to the game by his parents -- Peter, a Louthman from Carlingford, and Anne, from Kilcock in Meath -- as a 10-year-old.
Playing mini-rugby must have been a surreal escapade for the emerging beanstalk, but his interest rocketed when going to Castleknock College, where he would fall under -- in a manner of speaking -- the invaluable influences of the Quinn brothers, Mick, and particularly, forwards' coach Charlie.
From his first year, his commitment was evident and his graduation towards the professional ranks was inevitable as he joined the Leinster Academy while studying Sports Management.
He also completed Leinster's highly-regarded HETAC Diploma of Rugby programme, from where Jason Harris-Wright, Ian McKinley, Tom Sexton and Eamonn Sheridan emerged as the latest graduates yesterday.
A full Irish debut for the Kilcock native last autumn against Samoa, where he was given the responsibility of calling the line-outs, completed his graduation to the big time.
Now he wants to kick on, with Leinster poised to copperfasten positive starts in both domestic and European competition. "I suppose if you look at where we are in both tables, we're where we want to be," he says. "We're in control of our Heineken Cup table and now the focus is switched entirely to the Rabo.
"We're near the top of the table and we're going to try to keep control there. We want to win this week and keep the pressure on."