Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
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Toner 'at peace' if Ireland's call doesn't come again

‘If someone gets injured, would you pick the 34-year-old who has 70 caps or give the young guy a chance?’

WITH EACH PASSING Irish line-out malfunction in recent weeks it was impossible not to consider the missing ingredient. The tall timber that so many attacking platforms had been built around.

Traditionally, the second row is a position that can offer potential of longevity. Pace and explosive acceleration is less important for locks than hardy grown-man strength or the nous of an experienced line-out caller.

At 34, Devin Toner is still a few years shy of notable old dogs with a taste for hard roads like Victor Matfield or Brad Thorn. And while gratefully noting that his body feels in good nick, he notes that the competition for places in Leinster has, and can in future, work to his advantage by keeping him relatively fresh.

With Ross Molony and Jack Dunne in heavy rotation, Toner has started just three of Leinster’s seven bonus point-wins this season, playing 80 minutes just once. So the tank is full of diesel heading into tomorrow’s European opener in Montpellier.

In years past, Toner would be returning to Leinster at this point of the year with a run of internationals behind him. Andy Farrell’s first months in the job appeared to signal Toner was back in favour after missing out on Joe Schmidt’s final World Cup squad. A pandemic, shutdown and all that jazz later, the first-year head called to break the news that Toner was now on the squad’s periphery when it was time to start anew.

Out of favour needn’t mean over and out, of course. But the Meathman is philosophical about the prospect of playing in the international arena again.

devin-toner Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“I’m a little bit at peace. If I don’t get picked again, I’ve got 70 caps for Ireland. I’ve won a fair bit and I’ve played well when I did. So I would probably be happy enough,” says the lock who was a totem of Ireland’s pack for seven years.

“On the flip side, if I get picked again and I get called upon to play, I’ll absolutely put my heart and soul into it. But again, I’m a little bit at peace.”

The ‘again’ comes as Toner looks on the bright side of not working within a high performance bubble in Carton House for most of the past two months. His son Max is three and his wife Mary gave birth to their second child, Grace, just 12 weeks ago.

I would have found it fairly hard to leave my wife and two children to go into camp for eight weeks and not be able to go home. It would have been fairly hard for her not having the help at home. So it was probably a blessing in disguise that I wasn’t involved.”

While Toner is ready and willing to step back into the fray for Ireland, he also looks to his future prospects with a cold, realistic lens.

Sure, there will be injuries and openings, but he looks around at the quality of young second row talent and wonders what circumstance would propel him to the top of the queue.

“People could get injured, you never know what might happen. But, again, that could be an opportunity to give a young guy a cap. There is a lot of good young second rows,

“I know Fineen Wycherley was involved in camp and wasn’t called upon, Ross Molony has been going brilliantly for us, the fact that he hasn’t been involved in many camps is a bit bewildering.

“There are loads of good second rows around to be honest.  Anything can happen. If someone gets injured, would you pick the 34-year-old who has 70 caps or give the young guy a chance?”

Is he always so Zen about this stuff? Coaching calls that wholly uproot playing rhythms that had become the norm for most of his career.

“I’ve had a long time to think about it,” he says with a wry smile when his ‘peace’ with the situation is noted again. It’s been over a year since he began facing the music, even if it faded out from time to time.

devin-toner Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“I’m very realistic that it was going to happen eventually. I’m very much of the mindset that you have to take the positives from everything. I try to be optimistic about everything, about playing.

“Not putting on a brave face, but being energetic when you come in and just being positive to be honest. As I said before, with a young family at home, it’s hard being away for so long and not being able to help. We kind of said it was a bit of a good thing to be home to help to be honest. ”

As was the case with Rob Kearney, it would be entirely understandable if a player in the full of his health, but with apparently diminished international prospects took on a late-career adventure. The fullback is also 34 and will head for Australia’s Western Force. Toner’s contract is up next summer and Irish rugby will be feeling the pinch of losing gate receipts, so he’s keeping his options open while still loving life at his native province.

“Before this year, it was see how the body holds up. At the minute I’m feeling really good and I think I can play on. I think I can offer something.

“Obviously the contract situation is a bit different now. I’ve got to wait for this month and next month and see what’s happening But yeah I’d never rule out going away to be honest.

“I might be a bit of an adventure before the career ends. But I’ll see what happens here first.”

There would be some mighty big shoes to fill.

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