'You do miss it when you're watching it, but then I do like having free weekends as well'

Devin Toner says he’s caught in two minds during international weekends in which he’s not involved with Ireland.

Devin Toner during an Ireland captain's run in the 2020 Six Nations.
Devin Toner during an Ireland captain's run in the 2020 Six Nations.
Image: Brian Reilly-Troy/INPHO

DEVIN TONER HAS admitted to becoming a somewhat conflicted viewer of Ireland’s international Tests in recent times.

A shock omission from Joe Schmidt’s squad for the 2019 World Cup in Japan, the Leinster lock was subsequently recalled to the national camp by Andy Farrell for the following year’s Six Nations. He featured in the opening three rounds of the Championship, but hasn’t been included for any of the 16 games Ireland have played during the Covid-19 pandemic.

While there is a part of him that would dearly love to add to the 70 senior international caps he has accrued to date, the 35-year-old Meath native can also see a personal upside to not being involved.

“I do and I don’t, it’s a hard one. I do kind of enjoy having the weekend off to have a look at it and watch it, but then you see afterwards and you remember going back to The Shelbourne. All the celebrations and being part of the squad and all that sort of stuff,” Toner acknowledged.

“I do kind of miss that and the build-up to an international. Whether it’s going to The Shelbourne and having your walk-through the day of the game and then going to see the Aviva. You do miss it when you’re watching it like that, but then I do like having free weekends as well. It’s a catch 22, I do and I don’t.”

Even if he isn’t making the cut himself, there continues to be a strong Leinster contingent within the Ireland squad. No fewer than 12 players from the eastern province started the recent autumn international wins over Japan and New Zealand, while 14 were named in the match day 23 for last Sunday’s 53-7 victory against Argentina at the Aviva Stadium.

Given how substantial their representation has been over the past three games, Toner believes what is being done behind the scenes at Leinster must have seeped into the international set-up to at least some degree.

devin-toner Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“The little things that the lads have been doing in Leinster training, they would naturally have brought into their game.

“Andy Farrell has his own game plan, all the coaches have their own game plan as well, but little things that lads would be doing, they’d be bringing into the camp as well. You’d like to think that it would have a knock-on effect in camp.”

Whereas in previous seasons Leinster – and the rest of the Irish provinces – used to see regular league action in an autumn international window, a new-look rugby calendar instead left them idle for the past four weeks. Their most recent competitive outing was a 31-15 away success over Glasgow Warriors in the United Rugby Championship on 22 October, but they finally return to the field of play this Saturday.

Interprovincial rivals Ulster visit the RDS (kick-off 8pm) for a round six URC encounter that will kick-start a block of 10 games in as many weekends for Leo Cullen’s men.

Leinster currently sit at the summit of the competition’s league table, having accumulated 24 points from a possible 25 to date. Ulster are four points adrift of the Blues in second place and Toner is anticipating a backlash from Dan McFarland’s charges following their heavy defeat to Connacht last month.

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devin-toner-and-alan-ooconnor Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It will be good, I’m looking forward to it. It’s always good when they come to the RDS. We have a bit of a rivalry. The last time we played them in the RDS [a 21-17 triumph in the Rainbow Cup last May] our set-piece was scrappy and we didn’t play to the best of our ability.

“We know that and they obviously put a lot of analysis into what we did that day. We’ve been gearing up to this game for a while now, but so have they. They’ve had a good couple of weeks to focus on us and they would have been very disappointed with their last game out against Connacht. It’s all gearing up to be a good game.”

With each passing fixture that Leinster have in the RDS, they are edging a step closer to the venue’s full capacity of 18,500. 10,400 spectators were there to see them overcoming Zebre on 9 October and 14,005 bore witness to their 50-15 victory over Scarlets seven days later.

You have to go back to 4 January 2020 and a Pro14 clash with Connacht for the last time a crowd was present for an interprovincial meeting in Ballsbridge. Having played behind closed doors for so long, Toner is relieved that the turnstiles have now reopened for paying customers.

“We love having crowds back. Everyone is saying it every week. A big thing that Ireland had as a positive for them in that All Blacks game was the crowd. The whole autumn has been brilliant for them. Same with the RDS, it’s just brilliant having crowds back. It’s a different kettle of fish as opposed to an empty stadium,” Toner added.

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