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'There was a stage where I was thinking I was not going to be coming back'

Devin Toner thought his time at Leinster was coming to an end before he agreed a new contract.

Leinster lock Devin Toner.
Leinster lock Devin Toner.
Image: Gary Carr/INPHO

MARCH 27, AND DEVIN Toner is making his way to the front of the crowd to join Scott Fardy and Micheal Bent in lifting the Pro14 trophy after Leinster’s win over Munster at the RDS.

At this point it’s widely expected Fardy won’t be a Leinster player next season and that Bent will shortly be announcing his retirement. Toner’s presence at the front of the victorious Leinster squad seems to confirm he will be following them out the door.

Fardy’s retirement is confirmed on 15 April. Bent’s confirmation will arrive a couple of days later.

Yet between those two announcements, Leinster confirm Toner has signed a new one-year contract. 

“I pretty much thought I was going as well, to be honest,” he explains.

“I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of it but there was a stage where I was thinking I was not going to be coming back, yes. Which is a scary place to be, I suppose, not knowing what you are doing because of obviously being so secure for the past 15 years. 

‘Thankfully it all worked out.”

Toner doesn’t want to go into the details of why it looked like his time at Leinster was up, but is clearly happy to now have a new contract over the line.

devin-toner-and-michael-bent-lift-the-guinness-pro14-as-leinster-are-crowned-champions Toner (left) lifts the Pro14 trophy last month. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

When it became evident that Leinster may not have a place for him, he had been considering options abroad. 

“Retirement was never going to be on the cards, no, because I feel really good in my body, I think I’ve been playing pretty well this year.

“I think all options were on the table. I was looking at all options, to be honest, and I was taking everything under advisement.” 

The idea of finishing his career as a one club man isn’t something which holds too much weight for Toner, who turns 35 in June. He looks at the experiences of some former teammates and accepts there is plenty to be said for exposing yourself to a new environment. He could yet follow suit.

“It rarely happens but like I’m not going to say it’s the be all and end all, when it comes to next year I’m obviously going to re-evaluate. If the body’s still feeling well I will obviously see what all the options are. I’m never going to rule out playing somewhere else.

“I look at the likes of Donnacha Ryan (37) and how well he’s done in France and how well respected he is over there and he’s obviously one or two years older than me… and you take a look at Rob (Kearney) as well, everyone thought Rob was going to be a one club man and he’s having the time of his life over in Australia.

“So no, it’s obviously a very good accolade to be a one club man, but I wouldn’t say it’s the be all and end all.”

Toner’s CV makes for impressive reading. He recently became the province’s most capped player of all time. He’s been a part of seven Pro14 winning squads and four Champions Cup winning teams. 

So why does he want to come back for more?

Because I don’t think I’m finished yet. You know, my body is feeling great, I think I’m playing well and I think I have more to offer. And we’re still winning, so I want to finish my career with as many medals in my back pocket as I can and this is a great environment to do it.

“I think our drive, our desire for that fifth star is huge and I think it’s going to be huge obviously this weekend. But as I said, I think there’s more in me, to be honest.”

It helps that Toner has remained a key member of Leo Cullen’s playing group. The second row has featured 14 times for Leinster so far this season and remains far more than just a squad player, starting that Pro14 final win over Munster as well as the Champions Cup quarter-final victory over reigning European and Premiership champions Exeter.

The hunt for that fifth European star brings Leinster to the west coast of France this Sunday, and a first ever Champions Cup meeting with La Rochelle.

devin-toner-is-tackled-by-sam-simmonds-and-jacques-vermeulen Toner played 71 minutes in the win over Exeter Chiefs. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The Top 14 side’s head coach, Ronan O’Gara, has been the focus of much of the media attention this week, but the game also throws up a reunion with Jono Gibbes.

Now director of rugby at La Rochelle, Gibbes spent six years as Leinster’s forwards coach between 2008 and 2014, just as a young Toner was breaking into the first team.

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“Someone was saying would he have insight into Leinster, but it’s a fair while ago that he’s gone. Like, there’s a handful of players that he would have worked with here,” Toner says.

But Jono was huge for me as a young player coming through. I think whatever team he’s with, he brings a hard edge to it because he was obviously a fantastic player himself, he knows what it was like to play at such a high level and he got involved in training a lot more than other forwards coaches would. 

“He was always holding a bag and would always put an extra bit of weight behind the bag if you were hitting it and coming up as a young player, he was really good for me.

“Lineout-wise he was very good, he put a lot of analysis in and he learned a lot on the way, but the main thing was his mindset and how a forward pack should work and should go about it’s business.

“But as I said, he was fantastic for my development as a young player. He gave me my first shots as an up and coming player.” 

Gibbes and La Rochelle are in uncharted territory, with this game being their first experience of a Champions Cup semi-final. The French outfit represent new, yet formidable foes for Toner and Co.

“I think it’s one of the biggest tests that we’re going to have as a pack this year,” Toner continues.

“Their front five is massive and their backrow is explosive, dynamic. They’re smart, they’ve got good jumpers in the lineout, and obviously in the scrum when you’ve got (Uini) Atonio and (Will) Skelton on the same tighthead side they’re able to lock it out pretty well, they’ve got about 300 kilos between them.

“Obviously Will hasn’t got nominated for Player of the Year for no reason. He’s been playing brilliantly for them and he has obviously slotted into their way of doing things brilliantly.

“I think you can see sometimes in five-mans they put him out into the backline and he hits it up, and other times he’s in the lineout lifting and making a mess of mauls. He’s a great destructor of mauls, so as I said, it’s going to be one of the biggest tests this year for us.”

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Ciarán Kennedy

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