Wednesday 21 August 2019

Devin Toner on being a late bloomer, battling with Brad Thorn and why he isn't a fan of the physio room

Reaching the semi-final of the Champions Cup was a success, and now Devin Toner wants more

Leinster's Devin Toner
Leinster's Devin Toner
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Unlike a good number of folks fetching up to Lansdowne Road this afternoon, Devin Toner has been around long enough to remember the Border Reivers.

Back in the days before Scotland and Wales downsized their contingent to six teams between them, the Celtic brotherhood featured all sorts who have either dropped to a different level, or fallen off the face of the earth altogether. The Reivers, like the Caledonia Reds, were among those who went over the edge.

Not before they provided the opposition for Toner and Johnny Sexton to make their senior Leinster debuts though. It was January 2006 and he got 15 minutes off the bench, this big, gangling 19-year-old who struck you as a potential Irish equivalent to Wales' Derwyn Jones: a banker at the lineout, but of indeterminate value elsewhere. Jones, also 6' 10", would win 19 caps for his country, the last of which came in the year Toner got his first run with Leinster. It's safe to say the Irish version delivered a lot more bang for your buck.

Of course there were growing pains. Oddly enough, we remember coming across Toner in an under 13 game when he was in Castleknock College, more than head and shoulders above everyone else. You wondered then how far the journey would take him. When it came time for rugby fans outside of the AIL to tune in, it was a hard enough sell.

"Someone has asked me that before," he says. "They were talking about listening to people from the outside. I was thinking about looking up - yeah, the first five or six years, I know that, either you love me or hate me. I know outside of Leinster people don't like me as a player, didn't like me at the start. Just because I stand out.

"In the early years, I didn't carry the ball well or I missed a few tackles. I was always good in the lineout but (they) didn't really see what I offered. The last few years starting with Ireland, and Joe, people have seen it. The first five or six years, I used to look up on forums what people thought of me, the amount of shite that you'd see and people calling you out and stuff. And it's that time of my career that I learnt to block it all out. I don't - sorry I don't read papers; I don't look at media; I don't search my name; I don't look at Twitter. Yeah, when you're starting out you want to see how people think you're doing. Then, obviously, you see the crap coming up and you're down."

He wouldn't be the first to run through that sequence of events. For Toner, he was becoming fairly comfortable with what he had to offer by the time he was picking up a Heineken Cup medal in 2009. At that stage he was the bencher in a three-ball with Leo Cullen and Malcolm O'Kelly, but he made 13 starts that season on top of eight more appearances off the bench. The picture changed, as it does, when agents present coaches with other options. So by the time Leinster were picking up their second title, in 2011, Nathan Hines had entered his life. And a year later, briefly, Brad Thorn was invited to bring his unique talents to Dublin for a few months.

"I never really got angry about players coming in," he says. "Like Hinesy, he was a British and Irish Lion coming in. It would be frustrating someone . . . but he added so much to the squad. There is always going to be older players or more experienced players to play with and learn off. Probably Thorny coming in, it would have been more frustrating than Hinesy as he signed for two years but Brad comes in for three months, plays the semi-final and final. I might have started the quarter-final and pool games. That would have probably been more frustrating than the Hines situation.

Leinster's Devin Toner is tackled by Jonny Gray of Glasgow Warriors
Leinster's Devin Toner is tackled by Jonny Gray of Glasgow Warriors

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"Oh yeah, it was great business. It was frustrating for me. But for the whole, it was brilliant, people still talk about the impact he (Thorn) had, just his work ethic and the way he speaks his mind really well, the way he plays, the way he eats, looks after his body so well."

Clearly Toner has learned a bit from Thorn in that regard. Or perhaps it comes naturally to this Meathman whose longevity is remarkable. His capacity to turn up for work day after day became a given. So when he went missing there was a hasty revisionism about Devin Toner's value to club and country. Big Dev, big hole needs filling. In Leinster, is he the face least seen at the door of either physio or masseur?

"You could say that, yeah! My routine is if I need to get something done I get it done, but I haven't really needed to get anything done. It's worked for me so far, you know what I mean? Like rubs-wise I don't really get much out of them. If something was at me I'd go and get a rub but I wouldn't put myself down."

Mindfulness, then. Not part of his daily diet?

"Again, not really for me! I'm happy enough with my mental state at the minute, and I'm happy enough with how I deal with the pressures and how I deal with games. And I'm happy enough with how I've been going."

The ankle injury then should have been a traumatic occurrence. His only injury of note prior to that had been breaking a bone when still playing club rugby with Lansdowne - but he had the good grace to do that at the end of the season. So here was a whole new experience, actually missing rugby through injury as a professional player.

The ankle injury started just before Christmas with an awkward land at a lineout session in the week of the Munster game. He got back on the horse and then fell off again in the Six Nations opener against England. The surgeon told him there was a 10 years' worth of wear and tear to be cleaned out of the joint so he looked on the whole operation as a pit stop. More time as well to look after his young son of 18 months. Toner reckons that shift in his life, becoming a father, added something to his already healthy outlook on rugby as something not worth over-thinking.

"Yeah, I think so. I've said it before but it takes your focus away from rugby, so on your free time, you're literally focused on him. Our lives revolve around him now - when he's going for his nap, trying to entertain him, basically. We don't have a lot of free time to ourselves or for me thinking about rugby or anything else. So it kind of takes your focus off it. It kind of means when you're in here, when you're on duty, you're thinking more about what you're trying to do, to get more work done."

As Leinster's and Ireland's lineout leader much of that revolves around that half of the set-piece. Toner rates himself modestly on the nerd factor ratings in a phase of the game that is worth its own Christmas party. He admits that the conversation at such a gig would be dominated by gossip about who can lift and who can't. He does his homework but he doesn't lose sleep over it. Well, not much.

"Oh yeah, when stuff is going wrong, that's when you get stressed a little bit but with experience, you know how to handle it. When I say I don't get stressed, the one thing that would stress me is lineouts. Obviously when you're running it, the most stressful part of the game for me is the first lineout - our first lineout, getting it right. (Opposing) teams defend differently from each other, so the first lineout is their first defensive lineout and they might come up with something different from what they've been doing previously, so then I can look at it and then know where we need to go.

"After that first one, I have an idea of where we can go next. It's stressful if the first lineout is an exit lineout, or five metres from our own line. It's a confidence boost if you get the first one. You're feeling good."

This afternoon Toulouse will be throwing up two beanpoles to Leinster's one given Joe Tekori escaped punishment for putting Yohan Behergaray's lights out last weekend. Having met twice already this season, the lineout will be a battle where both are trying to bring something new. What Leinster are expected to produce, however, is more of the same: a performance to put them in the final, a chance of more silverware.

"Well yeah, because I've had a fair bit of success it would be deemed not a success not to get a medal at the end of the year, and that's a really good place to be. In an environment like this we want to win trophies and if we don't it's a bit of a failure.

"But in saying that you do have to take the small victories along the way. You win a quarter-final of the European Cup and you have to be able to stop and celebrate and say: 'Right, yeah, we did a really good job, now it's on to the next one'. So I think you can celebrate along the way, but obviously we all have one main objective for the year."

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