BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Towering Toner still reaching new heights

Devin Toner, right, and head coach Leo Cullen during Leinster squad training at Energia Park in Donnybrook, Co Dublin. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

A good lock is hard to find.

Not in a crowd, obviously, but in general. This has never been more obvious than back in September of 2011 when Leinster launched their Route 6’6” talent search for likely and lanky second rows. No short arses need apply, the advert could have said.

Launched by then academy manager Colin McEntee, the net was cast wide among a populace not renowned for it’s size. No rugby experience was needed, just a spark of sporting ability, a history of shopping in ‘Big and Tall’ retail outlets and a willingness to give it a go.

It was remarkable then and it’s still remarkable now. This wasn’t a University XV looking to plug a hole in the middle of their thirds’ teamsheet. Leinster had won the Heineken Cup just over a year before. They were head and shoulders above almost everyone else as it was.

But that’s as far as that went. Six months of nothing later and the province was striking off down a more familiar road, scanning the rugby landscape for a ready-made alternative to a recurring problem and returning to base with Brad Thorn hooked on a three-month contract.

Thorn’s influence was enormous, in complete contrast to the limited length of his stay. Players spoke of the Kiwi in hushed tones in interviews for years after and, while Devin Toner has always been quick to learn from others, the veteran’s arrival was, ultimately, another obstacle to overcome.

A senior squad member since 2005, when Michael Cheika arrived and handed him a promotion from the academy, Toner’s form had spiked appreciably through that 11/12 season under Joe Schmidt, but he ended it stuck behind Thorn and Leo Cullen.

He’s faced these challenges time and again. Toner has shared the senior sheds with 24 other locks in his time with Leinster. He has watched Cullen, Nathan Hines, Thorn, Quinn Roux, Mike McCarthy, Hayden Triggs, James Ryan, and Scott Fardy take a peg and none have seen the back of him.

“I can just do what I can do on the pitch,” he explained at the back end of that 11/12 campaign. It was classic Toner — understated, undramatic, and straightforward — but that calm exterior has always hidden a work rate and an ambition that has since taken him to the game’s heights.

Scan through the archives and you gain the sense of a man who has learned from the best, listened to his superiors, and shown a willingness and ability to pick up new tricks whilst never forgetting what it is that sells him to coaches in the first place.

“I have, to quote Liam Neeson, ‘a certain set of skills’ that I know do well for me,” he said last spring, and Sean Cronin explained those strengths earlier this week and ahead of his colleague’s second game since a return from rare injury.

“Dev has, whatever, 200-plus caps for Leinster and I don’t know how many for Ireland. A lot. He has huge experience there and to have him back (after injury) is a huge plus.

He is a calm guy on and off the pitch and he brings that into the way he operates the lineout.

“He brings clarity early on in the week with his prep and it is key for us to have a successful setpiece every weekend we go out. So, yes, he is a huge cog for us and he is back fit. He is ready to go and a big guy for us to have back.”

It’s the other stuff that he struggled with. Cheika and then forwards coach Mike Brewer used to tell him that he needed to bring greater physicality to his game and Toner acknowledged early on in his career that he found it hard to adapt to the brutality of the pro scene. He added considerable bulk in the summer of 2013 in order to facilitate that harder edge and, while it clearly worked given the niche he worked for himself for club and country this last five years, he has had to adapt again since.

Benched for the last Six Nations game of 2017, against England, and again for Leinster’s PRO12 semi-final against Scarlets some weeks later, he lost up to nine kilos in the subsequent off-season and wasn’t long in regaining his place for club and country.

Toner has had some powerful backers, from Cheika and Cullen at Leinster to Joe Schmidt who has used him extensively with club and country, and the Ireland head coach strayed well beyond the Meathman’s lineout prowess when dissecting his worth a few years back.

If his carrying has been a key work-on for as long as he has been a professional, then Schmidt paid rich tribute to his improvement in that department, as well as his obvious use at restarts and, maybe most

notably of all, a role in linking play that tends to go under the radar.

That’s always been in his locker. Take the Heineken Cup game against Bath eight years ago when he threw a delicious dummy and fed Rob Kearney in the run-up to a Luke Fitzgerald try.

Toner was a guest on The Late Late Show last month, though he will never hog the headlines, and it’s no coincidence that he was appreciated far more in his absence during the recent Six Nations than he would have been had he played.

Those closest to the fray know how his worth. Richie Gray, one of the few men able to look Toner in the eye on a rugby field, has crossed paths with him nine times between club and Test duties. The Scot understands implicitly the danger he poses to his Toulouse side tomorrow.

“He has become an integral part of the Leinster team and the Irish side. He runs the lineout incredibly well and he poses a lot of problems for the opposition. But also, obviously he is a big boy and he carries well. He’s just grown and grown.”


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