Friday 24 January 2020

'When Joe mentioned it, I didn't know what he was talking about' - Toner not happy with Schmidt's World Cup 'excuse'

Devin Toner reflects on how Leinster duty helped him over his World Cup omission and the refreshing side of his Ireland recall

Joe Schmidt omitted Devin Toner from his World Cup squad that travelled to Japan. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt omitted Devin Toner from his World Cup squad that travelled to Japan. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The Leinster versus Lyon game at the RDS this afternoon is less about who will win and more about how Leinster will do it. And what their position will be in the pecking order for a Heineken Champions Cup home quarter-final tie.

That's the stuff floating on the surface. Just beneath the water line, however, are a raft of subplots about men in blue fighting to stake a claim to be men in green when Ireland kick off their Six Nations campaign against Scotland next month.

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Devin Toner would he hard to miss at any stage, but currently he is making more waves than usual. It's not that he is conducting a campaign, rather the combination of another World Cup journey in the ditch and a new Six Nations sees him in a unique position. Missing out on the former might automatically help to feature in the latter. It's the circumstances of the omission that haven't gone away.

First, the background. Not long after Jean Kleyn arrived in Ireland and started featuring prominently for Munster, Joe Schmidt had visions of what the South African might bring to the Ireland table. By the time we rounded the bend last August, with Japan dead ahead, Kleyn slipped through the door in Lansdowne Road marked 'players only' - in the nick of time. By then the tom-toms were beating a rhythm that if you wanted a big-scrummaging tighthead lock then Kleyn was your man.

If the ground had been laid for his inclusion in the World Cup squad then it wasn't clear who would lose out. When the axe fell on Devin Toner it was, by a distance, the biggest call Schmidt had made in putting together his 31. The coach got a fair amount of grief for it, and took it in the neck. In his best-selling book however, published before Christmas, he added some context to the decision.

One issue for us was that we had been alerted that the citing commissioner was looking at an incident close to our line in the 75th minute (of the warm-up game versus Wales, in Cardiff), when Dev made shoulder contact with Rob Evans.

We hadn't noticed the contact at the time but we reviewed the footage and it didn't look good. We could see there was nothing deliberate from Dev but that his shoulder had impacted directly on Rob Evans's head. After Scott Barrett's red card and suspension over a shoulder charge in the Rugby Championship, we fretted that Dev would incur a similar sanction.

We had been warned by Alain Rolland, in his presentation to us, that any shoulder-to-head contact was likely to have a starting point of a six-week suspension. It was a difficult call but we decided to select Tadhg Beirne, who can play second row and back row, and Jean Kleyn, the only specialist scrummaging second row in the squad.

Toner wasn't cited. The interesting bit is why Schmidt - who took the pain when announcing the squad - should then reframe the decision when it came to the book. What would have been the material difference if Toner had been cited? If it had all gone pear-shaped, and he got a hefty ban, then replace him. Which is exactly what Schmidt did in making his selection in the first place. On the night the news was delivered to Toner, the second row was utterly unsuspecting.

"I was just on the couch with my wife, Mary, and we were watching TV and the name (Schmidt's) came up," he says. "And I just showed it to her and I was like: 'What's this?' I went to the kitchen and took the phone call and that was it. I went back in and she couldn't believe it either. That was it."

"The conversation that I had with Joe was: I wasn't going because they needed a tighthead lock and that I didn't show enough in the pre-season games. And then coming to the tail-end of the conversation, he mentioned something about a high hit but like, he never used it as an excuse that I wasn't going or why I wasn't getting picked. So when I saw that (subsequently, in print), to me that's maybe an excuse, do you know what I mean? I don't know."

Toner's body language in uttering those words was that he didn't think a lot of the excuse.

"When Joe mentioned it, I didn't know what he was talking about. I didn't remember a tackle. I didn't remember what happened. And then I saw something on Instagram or Twitter about it. I didn't see (anything in) it.

"I was pretty confident in going - which is probably a bad thing as well. I should probably be kept on my toes a little bit more but I thought I was going. Like, I wasn't 100 per cent confident but I still thought that I would have been needed for the lineout calling structure, which is maybe a bit naïve of me, but I don't know . . ."

So while Ireland were working their way around Japan, Devin Toner was hiking through the foothills of the Guinness Pro14: Benetton, Ospreys and Edinburgh. He did well to miss the 3-0 win away to Zebre but by the time he was part of the mixed bag that wrapped 50 points around the Dragons on November 1, it was all over for Ireland and his international pals were already on holiday, before returning to the real world. He had beaten them to it. The adjustment started early.

"It was more shock the first night," he says. "The next day it started eating away at me to be honest. I think she (his wife) was a bit angrier than me. I was telling her to calm down. I didn't vent. I texted a couple of people and as I said, I'm quite level-headed so I didn't really let it get to me that night and then, I don't know, I let it kind of fester the next couple of days."

It helped that at least the Pro14 chore was as part of a group unique in Irish rugby for its competition for places. The playing squad might have been lightened by 14 bodies but the back-up is significant, and the quality of the coaching hadn't diminished. So crack on and play.

"I think it was really important because it's a good distraction point," he says. "I came back and obviously all of the coaches, all of the lads were brilliant about it. Leo (Cullen) was really good because he went through similar as well, I think he had two World Cups not getting picked. Leo was brilliant. Getting into the start of the season, being one of the senior players gave me more focus because I had more pressure on my shoulders to steer the pack in the right way and steer the lineout in the right direction."

Rewind to the win over Glasgow at a freezing Scotstoun, where the points were secured at the death. They reacted like they had just won the competition outright.

"It was minus three on an astro, and it was like playing on concrete, but the young lads really stepped up to the mark. Glasgow had their full team out and we kind of went down to a try early and we came back and Cian Kelleher scored in the corner. After, in the dressing room, it was such a good feeling because all of the young lads stepped up and all the older lads did as well, and it was just a really good performance."

The reward came with confirmation that he hadn't fallen off the edge of Andy Farrell's world as well as Joe Schmidt's. The Christmas get-together in Abbotstown was a chunky affair, with 45 names including a few from satellite stations, but at least Toner saw his name on the list.

"It was good," he says. "I would have been disappointed if I wasn't (on it). It was really good being there; it was refreshing and a lot of that was down to the fresh faces there, the new younger lads that were invited, and being in Abbotstown and the new surroundings. It just had a refreshing feel to it."

Which is a good way to be at 33 years of age, with 67 caps for Ireland and the 250 mark with Leinster only seven games away after this afternoon. But catching current Leinster cap collector Gordon D'Arcy (257) will involve signing a new contract. Negotiations are ongoing. Given that there will be no central contract from the IRFU, so Leinster would be picking up the tab solo, it has the effect of crystallising their value of him. Toner appreciates this.

"Yeah . . . hmm. We'll see what happens there. I probably won't be trying to hold off - you never know what might happen."

You'd imagine they'll settle on a figure, and he can get on doing what he does best.

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