Friday 13 December 2019

Devin Toner seeking to emulate last season's lofty heights

With Leo Cullen now in a coaching role, Devin Toner accepts he will shoulder even more responsibility for Leinster this season. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
With Leo Cullen now in a coaching role, Devin Toner accepts he will shoulder even more responsibility for Leinster this season. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

As seasons go, last year couldn't have gone much better for Devin Toner. An integral part of Leinster's Pro12 success, he forced his way into the Irish reckoning and helped win the Six Nations Championship.

Following that up is a tough ask but when quizzed on how he might go about it, Toner simply says: "Just back it up. Do the same again."

At 28, he admits himself that he was a late bloomer but he is now determined to make up for lost time.

"I am pushing on. I've had a good pre-season. I think I'm the heaviest I've ever been.

"I think I'm the strongest I've ever been as well. Hopefully, that transpires into playing well. We'll see."

The 6ft 11in second-row has added an extra three kilos which brings his weight up to a record 127kg as he looks to improve in the contact areas.

"I've always said it's been a weakness of mine, getting down low into places, getting down low into rucks. I want to focus on my ball-carrying and making a nuisance of myself around the ruck," he says.

"I have to learn how to use my size and my weight."

Toner is expected to return to action against Scarlets this weekend and after the summer break he is "raring to go".

Leo Cullen the team-mate has now become Leo Cullen the coach and Toner fully understands the extra responsibility that is on his broad shoulders this season - although he is quick to point out that for large parts of last season, the same pressure applied.

"With Leo stepping down, there is a gap there," he admits.

"I think I took last year to step in and run the lineout as I did. I've learned pretty much everything I know off Leo. To have him around is pretty cool.

"He has brought a little more directness over planning our weeks and planning our lineouts and our strategies. He has slipped into the coach's role seamlessly like I knew he would.

"There is a lot more responsibility on my shoulders this year to step up."

Given that Toner missed last week's defeat to Glasgow, it allowed him to take stock of what went wrong on the pitch but, as well as that, he was able to watch Scarlets in action against Ulster.

Despite acknowledging that Leinster have plenty of areas to work on, he refuses to blame the defeat on early-season rustiness.

"It was difficult enough watching on. We didn't hold on to the ball, we fell off tackles - it wasn't the ideal start.

"I think Seanie (O'Brien) put it well after the game, we can't rely on that and say that. We're professionals at this stage.

"It's not good enough to say it was rustiness. We needed to get rid of that during pre-season games and to be honest I don't know what we can put it down to."

That determined mindset is an early indication of Toner already taking on more of a senior role within the squad and he knows that Scarlets carry a major threat this weekend.

"If you give them a chance to play with the ball, they're very good at offloading it and getting over the gain line.

Falling off

"But again, we've got to look at our own performance against Glasgow and say that we can't be falling off tackles like we did. We can't be standing on our heels like we did. We've got to get off the line and get in their faces," he quips.

"They've got Ken Owens in there, who has huge experience and is their captain now.

"You've got Jake Ball, who got capped last year by Wales. He's a solid player, a big brute of a man.

"You can look at every game and say that the front five is a pretty important place to get right, get your scrum and lineout right, get in tight to the ruck and maul. They're a good outfit but we've got a pretty good record against them in the last couple of years so I think we should be okay."

Two opening defeats would be inconceivable for the reigning the champions but the return of several Irish internationals will give them a massive boost.

Toner may be determined to build on his best ever season and win more silverware but for now, the focus is very much on Scarlets.

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