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'Joe is the coach who has picked me over my career. I wouldn’t be here without him'

Devin Toner has been one of Joe Schmidt’s most reliable performers in his eight years in Irish rugby.

THERE HAVE BEEN some sceptics along the way, but Devin Toner’s enduring worth in the second row is evidenced in the trust placed in him by Joe Schmidt down through the years. 

Of Schmidt’s 61 games in charge of Ireland, Toner has been involved in 54 of those — 46 as starts — which is more than any other player, and goes some way to highlighting his importance in the engine room.

Ireland’s Devin Toner wins a lineout from New Zealand's Kieran Read Toner in action against the All Blacks. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Even at Leinster, Schmidt showed huge confidence in the Meath native by giving him his real breakthrough opportunity at the province during the 2010/11 season, after his career had been something of a slow burner to that point.

Making his debut off the bench against Border Reivers in 2006, Toner found game-time hard to come by for the first few years at the province, until establishing himself in the Leinster pack under Schmidt, making 17 starts in the Kiwi’s first year in charge.

The 32-year-old has certainly repaid the faith over the years, becoming a key cog in Schmidt’s Ireland wheel, while playing integral roles in Irish rugby’s memorable days during the head coach’s tenure. 

Back in Leinster blue for this weekend’s Heineken Champions Cup clash against Bath, Toner was asked about his reaction when hearing of Schmidt’s decision to leave the post after next year’s World Cup. 

“I don’t know what I was expecting, to be honest,” he said. “Joe, more power to him, I am going to wish all the best in anything he does. He is the one coach that has picked me over my career and I wouldn’t be here without him to be honest.

“He has had that confidence and picked me so whenever he finishes up at the World Cup he is hoping to have a bit of time to put his feet up so all the best to him. 

“I think Faz [Andy Farrell] has proved over the past couple of years what he is worth to the squad and how popular he is. I think all the lads love him a coach, he is down to earth and I am delighted that he got the nod.”

Asked to compare the coaching styles of Schmidt and his successor Farrell, Toner continued: “Faz would have more of a job to try and get more in your head, try to get you up for the game, I suppose. 

“Obviously, because he’s been focussing on defence for the last couple of years, he’s more into getting you to get off the line, get your big hits in, trying to impose yourself on the game, get in your head and get you to be emotional.

Devin Toner Toner speaking to the media in UCD this week. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“Whereas Joe is a detail man and trying to get your homework done. He does try and get you up as much as well, but not as much as Faz. That might change now he [Faz] will be the head coach. I’ll see what happens.”

As for Leinster, Toner returns to club duty this week for the first time since the disappointing round two defeat to Toulouse having had a few weeks to recover from the November Test exertions. 

Leo Cullen’s side travel to the Rec on Saturday with their ‘senses heightened’ after slipping to defeat in France, which leaves them second in Pool 1, two points behind Toulouse and two ahead of Bath.

“I’m not going to say it is good that we lost,” he said.

Obviously it makes this weekend all that more important for us. It is a really important game in a good block of games that we are starting now so it is hugely important for us to get a win and for us to get qualification.

Toner is expecting a tough battle against a Bath outfit who are traditionally strong up front, particularly in the back row where they boast a potent unit of Francois Louw, Sam Underhill and Zach Mercer.

“They are one of the best around,” Toner acknowledges.

“They will go really hard at the ball. A huge thing for us is at the breakdown area. We are going to be focusing on is getting quick ruck ball.

“You walk to the ground, you feel the buzz and atmosphere. It is a really nice town, a really nice city, really kinda cramped changing rooms to get changed in. It is a traditional type of rugby town I suppose and a very hard place to go.”

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