'I keep quite calm, I need to': Devin Toner rises above it all

Ireland’s most consistent presence doesn’t expend energy getting himself to the right emotional pitch.

GENTLE GIANT HAS never been the right description for Devin Toner.

There’s just too much brutality to his profession, too many collisions, grapples and heaves which can be attributed to the 6′ 11″ Ireland and Leinster lock on a weekly basis.

Devin Toner Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

And yet, each and every time we speak to Toner, post-match or pre, he’s calm, solid, measured, unflappable.

Is there a disconnect somewhere along the way? Does Toner’s Mr Hyde come out to push that immense work-rate once he walks into a dressing room or crosses the white line?

Neither, according to the man himself as his long legs angle upwards from an armchair in Carton House this week.

He’s never seen the sin-bin while on Ireland duty, and has picked up just six yellow cards over 205 appearances for Leinster. So does he ever even get angry?

“Of course,” says the lock with a shrug. It’s just that he doesn’t need a rage to push him to the peak of his performance.

“I’d like to think from my demeanour I keep quite calm on the pitch as well. I need to be when calling line-outs, trying to think about the game-plan and moves, what we’re going to do.

“I wouldn’t say I go from 0-60, I just get on with it.”

This ability to rise above it all is a central part of why Toner has been a near-permanent feature of Joe Schmidt’s pack.

Until taking a back seat to Donnacha Ryan and Iain Henderson against England in March, the only even gaps in the Meathman’s steady list of international appearances were the less-than-key occasions where Schmidt imposed a rest on him. When it comes to the very biggest games, Toner is essential.

I take a lot of confidence from that. My injury profile stands to me as well, it shows that I do try to take care of myself.”

Indeed, his relentless caps chase has resulted in a remarkably low injury count. He’s exceptionally durable and the only thing making him feel old is the presence of a 21 and a 22-year-old lock bounding around him, eyeing up his jersey, wondering how it might fit. Throw Ultan Dillane and Iain Henderson into the mix too and Toner has more than enough competition to keep him on his toes no matter what his track record says.

“I say I feel old, but in my body I don’t. It’s just around the place I feel older than all the rest of them. But I actually feel better than I did last year, to be honest.

“I’d like to think I’m playing better, I’ve lost a fair bit of weight and I’m getting around the pitch a bit more. I feel better in my body than I did last year.”

Devin Toner, CJ Stander and Conor Murray during the anthems Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

There was a time when Toner had to work hard to keep weight on that lengthy frame. No such trouble once you cross into your 30s though, and his decrease from 131 kgs to 123 kg for this season is mostly down to some gruelling stints on the watt bike in Clonskeagh.

“A lot of that was fat,” he says, “it’s a fair amount of weight to be carrying around.

“It’s really good for line-out as well, it gets me up quicker and makes me easier to lift.”

An eight-kilo loss is an investment in his future. No rugby player is guaranteed longevity, but Toner plays in a position which gives the best chance at it. 11-and-a-half years after making his professional debut, there’s nothing about Toner that ought to make him think he’s on the wane. Not after a win at least.

“I think you’re always thinking about (the future), to be honest. I’m 31 now, 32 next June and seeing these young lads coming up… James Ryan is 21-years-old and he’s hugely strong, hugely fast.

“But I think everyone thinks that, you know, you have one bad game and you think you’re done, one good game and you’re top of the world.”

Devin Toner and Eoin Reddan dejected after the game Source: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

For Schmidt’s 50th match in charge of Ireland this weekend, Toner will hope to be back in the engine room to face Argentina – the opponent who have cast a shadow across all the other exceptional work and progress that has been made under Schmidt since 2013.

While many might like to expect a grudge match, short clips from the 2015 quarter-final catastrophe have been the only reference point players have touched from the last meeting between the sides.

“I’m seeing them and getting these nightmares,” Toner jokes as he describes the video nasties popping up during the review.

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They make for uncomfortable watching, they hurt. But do they make you angry, Dev? No? Just checking.

“You don’t feel angry, I suppose, it’s more a feeling of what could have been and you look at the stuff you did wrong, and what went wrong, loads of stuff, to be honest.

You don’t you need any motivation for any international game, but looking back for the lads who were playing, that was the last international we played against Argentina.

“But again we’ve moved on as a team and they’ve moved on as a team. They’ve got so much more experience now, they’ve got the Super 15 Jaguares and stuff like that.

 ”We’ve moved on as well. We’ve had the All Blacks win, and obviously the South Africa one, so we’ve both moved on.

 ”We can’t overlook it. For the players who were there, it is still going to deep down. But it’s not going to be to the forefront.”

Devin Toner Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

So what does annoy Toner? He smiles, it could well be this line of questioning.

“I don’t know, in mauls and people coming in the side – grabbing you off the ball during a ruck and trying to stop you getting around the corner.

“That sort of stuff. Niggly stuff.”

He’s far from gentle in those situations, this gallant giant.

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