one on one

'People have been writing me off since day one, but I'm always going to be there fighting'

Now in his 14th season as a professional, Devin Toner feels as fresh and fit as ever as he continues to stand the test of time.

ON ONE OF the many meeting room walls inside Leinster’s UCD headquarters is a new mural to mark the province’s landmark double, flanked either side by reminders of the other memorable days from down through the years. 

From Lansdowne Road and the Celtic League-winning team in 2001, to the current squad and the fourth European star in Bilbao on that gloriously rainy May day just gone, they’re all there, indelible moments in time captured and proudly displayed for all to see.

Devin Toner Toner is in his 14th season at Leinster. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Given his height, Devin Toner is not easily hidden, but in nine of the trophy-winning team photos he features in, the second row can be spotted tucked away at the back, away from the limelight and attention. But he’s there, an ever-present on so many of Leinster’s best days.

Now in his 14th season at his native province, Toner’s extraordinary durability is underlined by the fact he has just come off arguably his finest year as he played a key role in Leinster’s double-winning campaign and Ireland’s Grand Slam success.

Starting with an 80-minute performance in the November win over South Africa, the 32-year-old featured in all five of Ireland’s Six Nations games, starting three, and although rested for the first Test in Australia, was crucial in securing a famous series win Down Under in the second and third Tests.

For Leinster, he played 20 times, including all nine Champions Cup games en route to a fourth star, as he continued his record of playing 30 games for club and country in five of the last seven seasons. 

Even with the emergence of young pretenders, Toner has more than withstood the test of time, consistently proving his worth to any team he plays in and there’s no sign of him slowing down just yet, or his appetite being sated by a remarkable year. 

“People have been writing me off since day one,” he laughs, during a conversation with The42 this week.

“I look back on last year with great pride and obviously James [Ryan] coming through and the amount of competition in the second row is massive.

“James is obviously an unbelievable player and he will be for years to come, you can see that already, but competition is the be-all of rugby, it’s what drives it, it’s what drives players to be better.

“I’d like to think it drove me to be better last year as well, especially with Fards [Scott Fardy] there as well, he played awesome all year.”

Leinster's Jack McGrath and Devin Toner after the match Toner helped Leinster to a dream season last year. Inpho / Billy Stickland Inpho / Billy Stickland / Billy Stickland

Coming through the ranks at Leinster with the likes of Leo Cullen, Brad Thorn and Nathan Hines for competition, Toner has always had to work for the jersey, ditto on the international stage in a position where Ireland have always been well-stocked in with Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan sitting atop the pecking order.

But what has stood to Toner over the years, and even to this day, is his remarkable injury profile, or more specifically the fact nobody can quite remember a game he has missed through injury in the last five years.

As such, he is the most capped player in Schmidt’s Ireland tenure having played in all but five of those 58 Tests in the last five years, with Jack McGrath second on 50 and Conor Murray next with 48. 

Last season, as mentioned, he was an indispensable part of Schmidt’s plans, playing in 10 of Ireland’s 11 games. 

“What stood to me has been my injury profile, I got my start in the original days when people we’re getting injured,” he continues. “I got my Leinster start when Leo was getting injured and Ireland when Paulie got injured. It has stood to me over the years. Hopefully I keep going. 

“A huge amount of it is luck, maybe because I’m slow and I can’t really run fast, I can’t really pull any muscles. I’ve been incredibly lucky, don’t think I’ve ever missed a game because of injury and long may it continue.”

Rewind two years ago and Schmidt’s selection of Iain Henderson alongside Donncha Ryan for the final Six Nations game against England appeared to be the beginning of the end for Toner in a green jersey, as the Ulster man assumed the position of lineout caller and a young lock at Leinster was already proving he had all the credentials to be the next Paul O’Connell. 

But Toner, as an incredibly reliable performer who has added a more dynamic ball-carrying ability to his armoury in recent years, has never bowed to competition, nor was he going to surrender the jersey he had made his own easily. 

“I’m always going to be there, I’m always going to be fighting. With Joe, he was the one who kind of gave me my start, Cheiks [Michael Cheika] gave me my chance at Leinster first, and then Joe kind of gave me that starting position at Leinster and with Ireland he was the one who started me as well. Joe has been great for my career anyway, having him as a coach.

Jake Ball and Devin Toner He will make his second appearance of the season tonight. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“There’s a huge amount of options and this year is a new year, Tadhg coming back to Munster is huge. He’s going to factor heavily, James, Hendy, Ultan [Dillane] and Quinn [Roux]. I could keep naming them. Hopefully I keep standing the test of time and my body holds up.  

“Over the years I’ve known what’s worked for me and I’m going to try keep doing that. You see James and he’s an incredible athlete but I think we’re different players. I’m needed to run a good lineout, to organise that side of things, and he’s used as a battering ram and add that extra bit of flash I suppose, which I don’t have.

“I’ve been quite reliable, I suppose, over the years.” 

Toner’s presence as a primary ball winner is his obvious strength but it’s that leadership at the set-piece and capacity to run a smooth and effective lineout which makes him so valuable, while he has always possessed an excellent work-ethic and ability to rack up the tackles. 

Calling and organising a lineout is certainly an understated role within the team and following Donncha Ryan’s departure for Racing 92, Toner’s worth in Schmidt’s eyes increased in that regard.

With the World Cup looming large, Toner will look to continue his consistently strong form through this season and into Japan to remain in possession of the number four jersey, adding to his 60 caps during the upcoming November internationals and next year’s Six Nations.

But, for now, the Meath native’s focus is on today’s Guinness Pro14 clash against Edinburgh at the RDS as he makes his second appearance of the season having featured in Leinster’s disappointing defeat to Scarlets in round two.

Having had last week off, Toner got to work on Leinster’s lineout a few days early as the province look to secure quick and quality ball off the set-piece, while negating the threat Edinburgh’s second row pairing of Fraser McKenzie and Ben Toolis will pose.

“You have to respect every opposition every week and have a look at their strengths and weaknesses and in the lineout you’ve got to know what you’re expecting and know what you’re coming up against at the weekend,” he explains.

“You have to know where you’re going to be able to win the ball. It’s hugely important to get quick lineout ball. We’d go in on a Monday and I might have a previous idea of what menu we were going to use. Because we know Edinburgh very well, because we play them a lot, we know they’ve a brilliant lineout.

“I would have had a look last week because I kind of knew I wasn’t going to be involved [against Dragons]. Then Monday comes, we go through a menu on Monday and Tuesday and talk through it. We have a broad idea of who might be involved and then whoever is not would recreate Edinburgh.

“All through the week we do a bit of work. It’s constantly evolving, evolving calls and movement. You have to be, you have to keep evolving because sometimes your calls might come out on the TV and you might need to change them.”

Devin Toner The Meath native has won 60 Ireland caps. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

When Toner steps out at the RDS later this evening, he will win cap number 220 for the province having made his senior debut against Borders in 2006 while still in the academy.

His game has gone from strength to strength since then, and despite his haul of three previous Heineken Cup medals at home, last year was arguably Toner’s best in blue.

Perhaps it was his late start — he had only won seven Ireland caps at the age of 27 before Schmidt took control — that has kept him fresh and the hunger levels high, but there is no question as to how much last season meant to him.

“You have to be able to look at your achievements and look at what you’ve done,” the 6ft 10in lock says.”I’ve been privileged to be part of a lot of good teams and have won a lot of stuff.

“I’m absolutely delighted to have all of those honours but you still have to be looking forward as well. You don’t look at finish date or when you retire so you can’t really put a number on how much you want to win or what you want to do but I think every year it’s a clean slate in pre-season and you start over again from new. You can look back and appreciate as much as can.

“Last year does remind you that they [the good days] don’t come that often, because I suppose it was six years since the last one [European final]. It did mean that bit more to me this time around. I was obviously part of the squad for the other European finals, like I was on the bench for all three other finals, but I think this year I felt more part of the squad. You feel more part the more you play and felt like I’m a senior member of the squad now and, yeah, it meant the world to me this year.”

The arrival of Toner’s first son, Max, has naturally added fresh perspective to rugby, but at the same time has helped his overall game as family life offers that distraction from rugby to keep the mind fresh.

“It was really good in the November internationals, getting him out on the pitch as well with me and you see all the other lads do it as well. It’s a great feeling.

“You think about rugby a lot less on your time off too. Young lads who are just starting out and don’t have family or kids, they don’t stress about it, but they’re always thinking about previous games and wins and losses.

“I feel now if we have a loss or a good win, you go home and there are other things to focus on and other things to talk about. You’ve got to go out and do your family stuff, and it’s actually really good to take your mind off it that way.”

It’s back to business this evening, though.

Devin Toner celebrates with his son Max and Robbie Henshaw after the game With son Max after last year's Champions Cup semi-final win over Scarlets. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Leinster are bidding to inject momentum into their season after last week’s bonus-point win over Dragons but the visit of Richard Cockerill’s Edinburgh will provide a far stiffer test, particularly up front where the Scots will arrive fully loaded.

From there, Leinster go into back-to-back Pro14 inter-pros against Connacht and Munster before opening their Champions Cup title defence with Pool 1 clashes against Wasps and Toulouse. It never stops.

“It doesn’t, does it? It just gets bigger and bigger every year and the pressure is more because we’ve got a target on our backs this year because we’re the team everyone wants to beat. It’s the nature of it, the nature of rugby.

“But naturally I’m quite a laid-back kind of guy. I wouldn’t really get nervous anymore… Well I probably would get nervous around the lineout, worrying if it’s going to work or not. If I come up with a move, I’m like ‘is it going to work or not?’ but that’s probably the only thing to be honest.

“It is an age and experience thing, I don’t really get nervous anymore but the pressure is still there. The RDS is a fantastic ground, a fantastic atmosphere. Any chance you do get to play there is a real buzz and that feeling will never go away.”

Even after 14 years, and 219 Leinster appearances, Toner remains at the heart of it all. And long may it continue. / YouTube

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