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Dublin: 9 °C Thursday 18 December, 2014

‘Do I want to be a pro? Hell yeah!’ Devin Toner reaping benefits of seeds sewn long ago

The Meathman helps us chart his rise and rise from hurling in Castleknock to World Cup 2015.

This interview appears in summer edition of IRUPA’s In Touch Magazine.

IN JUNE 2013, Devin Toner set off for North America with five international caps to his name but only one Test start. This summer he toured Argentina as one vital half of a formidable second row partnership with Paul O’Connell.

Caps six to 15 were all starts as Toner bedded down in an Ireland team that clinched a Six Nations championship in Paris. The Meath native turned 28 in late June and his journey to a regular in the Ireland XV has been a long time coming.

Devin Toner

Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I came off the bench for my Leinster debut in [January] 2006. Myself and Jonathan Sexton were capped together for the first time. We were 30 or 40 points up at the time so they probably felt it was safe to throw us on.”

Toner’s early rugby career was a slow burner. He admits to unremarkable early days with the school team at Castleknock College — “They might have said I’d be a rugby player behind my back but no-one said it to my face.” He played Gaelic football and hurling until he was 17, yet credits Mick Quinn from Castleknock College for training his focus on rugby.

Competition for places in the Leinster Academy is now fierce, but Toner recalls he was the only second row to be given a one-year academy deal. The final step, before that contract was secured, was an interview with Colin McEntee [now the IRFU’s High Performance Manager]. “I was asked to come along with my parents,” says Toner, “and Colin asked ’do you want to be a professional rugby player?’ My response was along the lines of ’Hell yeah’.”

Six caps arrived over Toner’s first two years in blue with his first pro contract penned in 2007, ahead of a season when Leinster won the Celtic League to uncork a trophy glut that continued on 31 May with the RaboDirect PRO12 title. While he was part of Leinster’s supporting cast, Toner featured prominently for Lansdowne in the AIL and for Ireland U21s.

Devin Toner

Source: ©INPHO

Underage teammates included players such as Sexton, Billy Holland, Rob Kearney, Duncan Williams and Fionn Carr. Leo Cullen and Malcolm O’Kelly were the Leinster totems during Toner’s early years but each season saw him develop into a indispensable squad member.

2010/11 was breakthrough season as he made 22 provincial appearances, won a Test debut against Samoa and featured off the bench in ties with New Zealand and Argentina.

There was a three-year gap between Toner’s third and fourth cap. In between, he met Joe Schmidt and benefited from the New Zealander’s keen coaching interest. By the time Declan Kidney departed the international stage, Toner had enjoyed his best season for Leinster and had matured into a line-out leader and a cornerstone of one of club rugby’s best packs.

Still, when Ireland caretaker coach Les Kiss selected him to tour Canada and the USA, many expected Toner to feature before ceding a second row position to the likes of Donnacha Ryan or Mike McCarthy.

“That tour was really important for me,” he says, “and I saw it as a real chance to step up and prove myself at Test level. It was an opportunity for me to lead the forwards and call the line-outs as I was one of the most experienced in the squad. I was at the end of a successful season with Leinster, having won the league and Challenge Cup final.

Paddy Wallace, Devin Toner and Luke Fitzgerald

Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Having made my debut in 2010, I was determined to make the most of it second time around. I put a lot of the lack of opportunities down to the quality players in my position – Paul O’Connell is world-class and you have lads like Donncha O’Callaghan and Ryan who have proven themselves against the very best.”

Schmidt has won acclaim for setting personal goals and tactical tweaks that bring the best out of his players. Toner remarks that Schmidt gave him no specifics when he advanced from Leinster to Ireland duty. Working on defence, he adds, is something both player and coach agreed needed strengthening.

“Missed tackles, and falling off tackles, used to be a weakness of my game but I feel I have got on top of that now. That comes with experience too. The more games you play, the better you position yourself to make the tackle of anticipate a team or player’s next move.”

Toner also credit’s the work John Plumtree, who returned to coach in New Zealand after the Argentina tour, put in with the Irish pack last season. He explains, “Plumtree said, after a short while with us, ‘I think you have a good pack but I want it to be a great pack’. The mauls are used to target many teams in New Zealand and South Africa, where he worked, so he made improvements there. He also worked on our line-out and, during the Six Nations, we got it pretty spot on.”

One thing that Toner, Schmidt and Plumtree were not expecting was to lose team captain and chief line-out caller, O’Connell to a stomach bug hours before the Six Nations opener against Scotland. “I was told the morning of the game that Paulie wouldn’t make it,” the lock recalls. “We look to prepare for all eventualities but it was still a bit of a shock to be told ’Ok, you’re in’. There were a few butterflies but I’m used to calling so once the game starts, it all came together.”

The entire tournament came together well for Toner as he started each of the five Tests. He claimed 19 line-outs, won six turnovers for Ireland and won 47 tackles [missing only three in the five games]. The performances were recognised by his fellow professionals as he was nominated for the IRUPA player of the year [a prize claimed by another revived, resurgent Test player, Andrew Trimble].

Having played 30 times for Leinster and Ireland last season, and with a World Cup just over a year away, Toner insists missing this summer’s tour was never an option. “This is the first real season I have had of full involvement with the Ireland team so I’m not close to needing that time off. There was no way I was going to miss the tour, to be honest. Guys like Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien are well established in the squad but I’m still proving myself.

“Everybody has targets and I am looking at the World Cup, no doubt. All I want to do is play in the next round of Ireland games [in November]. If I’m in the team, I’ll go from there and hopefully that will take me all the way to next year.”

This interview appears in summer edition of IRUPA’s In Touch Magazine.

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