Slimmer Toner set to hit the 200 mark
A stone lighter, Leinster lock is embracing increased competition as he prepares for milestone
Long gone and almost forgotten, the Border Reivers name rose from the ashes at UCD yesterday as Devin Toner sifted through his Leinster memories ahead of his 200th cap.
Standing as tall as he does, the Meathman turned heads in the 4,125-strong crowd in Donnybrook when he replaced Australian Adam Byrnes during a routine 62-14 win over the doomed Scottish side.
Twelve years on, sporting a little less hair on top, a lot more weight on his 6ft, 10in frame and a veteran of 50 Irish caps; the second-row approaches his latest milestone acknowledging the need to take in the achievement while also knowing that he must continue to set standards to maintain his position as the pre-eminent lock for club and country.
On Saturday, he packed down alongside new signing Scott Fardy against the Dragons and when he took his leave he was replaced by Irish rugby's next big thing, James Ryan.
Over the summer, Toner, 31, slimmed down by a stone in an attempt to make himself a more mobile proposition around the field and he hopes to reap reward for that work as he finds his legs over the course of the season.
The Leinster appearances came slowly after that first outing, but eventually the caps flowed and his remarkable ability to avoid injury has contributed to a career that has blossomed thanks to the hard work and patience of those early years.
"It's been a long road, I suppose," he said as he considered his 200th cap.
"It doesn't feel that long. It feels as if it has flown by but looking back at the caps I was getting each season it was two, then three, then four and five and then 17, 18 and up to 30, so it gradually got there.
"Leinster put a lot of faith in me when I was coming out of the academy. I did a lot of work myself but back then, ten years ago and compared to now, the young lads coming out of the academy are far more advanced than I was.
"They seem to be ready a lot younger now, so I would be the first to say that Leinster put a lot of faith in me, a lot of work, and I am really grateful for it."
One of those young lads is already an Ireland international who belatedly made his provincial bow last Saturday in Newport.
Ryan is currently at the protégé stage, but the way he's going it won't be long until he's challenging the senior men for starting berths.
Although the 21-year-old picked up a shoulder injury at the weekend, which might temporarily halt his momentum, the youngster has been impressing his soon-to-be rival.
"The first time I saw him was when he was captain of the (Ireland) U-20s team and he was unbelievable in that World Cup," Toner said.
"Watching him score tries all over the place, then he came in and had that horrific (hamstring) injury and he had a year out. He was always down in the gym working hard, getting right.
"He only started training on the pitch with us at the end of last season and you can tell he is a special player.
"Obviously being selected for the Ireland tour then, he's a really good trainer, really attentive, he listens to everything; you can tell he's taking everything in.
"He likes to learn, he's writing everything down and then just even on the Ireland tour he played really, really well.
"He came off the bench and scored a try straight away, then at the weekend when he came on he had a bursting run up the middle of the field."
While Hayden Triggs certainly contributed over the course of his time with the province, the arrival of Wallaby Fardy has increased the class of tight forward available to Leo Cullen this season and Toner was impressed with his new partner on Saturday.
Known mostly for his work as a blindside flanker, the 33-year-old Australian has some adapting to do when it comes to northern hemisphere pack play, but the early signs are promising.
"He's really good," Toner said. "He was saying it's taken him a while to get used to coming out of a scrum every time and get out in the backline, so I think he needs to get a few more games under the belt to get used to that.
"Obviously he's got a huge amount of experience, it is brilliant to have him there and he brings a lot of energy to the team.
"It's great to see (the things he does) like what he is like at the breakdown and where he runs in attack. There is obviously a lot of pressure for all the other second-rows as well for their places. There is a huge amount of competition this year.
"He needs to get used to scrumagging and using all his weight there and then getting out quickly and getting into the play.
"He's signed here because of what a good player he is. He'll thrive. I don't think he needs to change that much."
His arrival and the emergence of Ryan has increased the competition so, as he enjoys the moment at the RDS on Friday as he takes the field against Cardiff Blues Toner also knows that he'll need to keep performing to keep the milestones coming.