Brian Barry profiles the rise and rise of Devin Toner, from a laughing stock to world class lock.
Leinster’s season all but came to an end last night with a 26-10 defeat, five days after Toulon put pay to their European dreams in extra time last week in Marseille.
While there has been widespread condemnation of Matt O’Connor this year, due to the drop in defensive intensity, his reluctance to try Ian Madigan at 10, and overall fall in standards, there have been some positives.
Since his debut for the province, Devin Toner has remarkably risen in the rankings of not only Irish locks, but in the World. Having been written off by many from an early stage of his career as being nothing but a one-trick pony (that being his height), Toner has proved his doubters time and time again.
In November 2010, this writer traveled to the new Aviva Stadium to watch Ireland face up against the All-Blacks. With Paul O’Connell out injured for the series, and several back-up second rows also missing, there was fear that Ireland would struggle in this department.
Toner, having made his test debut against Samoa the previous week, was named on the bench as Declan Kidney elected for the experience of Donncha O’Callaghan and Mick O’Driscoll. Of course O’Driscoll was in the Autumn of his career, and was called ashore after 50 minutes.
And so, Toner was introduced. Many the Ireland fan in attendance was not familiar with the 6 fot 10 in second row, as he was still very much behind Leo Cullen and Nathan Hines in the pecking order at Leinster. Comments were thrown around the stands that he was too lanky, and would not cause any problems to New Zealand who were in the process of killing off their prey, after Ireland mounted a commendable challenge in the opening 40 minutes.
Indeed Toner failed to find a foothold in the game, but could be excused considering it was one of the more forgettable 40 minutes of the Kidney era, barring a piece of magic from Brian O’Driscoll to put gloss on the scoreboard.
Alas, this was to be Toner’s last international action for 2 years, and so he went back to Leinster to keep doing what he was doing.
However, in that time, Toner’s rise was impressive, and constant imrpovement under Joe Schmidt meant that the former Castleknock College student was now a real weapon, not only at line-out, but also around the pitch.
Toner is no longer the one-trick pony he once was. Yes, his height is an asset to any side he plays for, not only at the line-out but also in the loose. But his work-rate and ball-carrying have improved immensly. This is not solely due to the fact that he has bulked up, although this has naturally aided him. Around the park, on the ground, and bringing the ball into contact, Toner is slowly becoming the complete second row.
It was perhaps his relationship with Schmidt that benefited him on the international stage, and when the Kiwi took the helm for Ireland, Toner was very much to the fore of Schmidt’s plans. While Donncha O’Callaghan was finishing up his career, there was a void alongside Paul O’Connell in this World Cup cycle.
In stepped Toner, and he has not looked back once. Simply, he has been phenomenal, and at the heart of Ireland’s back-to-back 6 Nations Championships. Partnering sombody like O’Connell throughout his final years in a green jersey is a privilege, and one of which Toner is enjoying every second.
This experience can only stand to Toner, and when O’Connell does hang up the green jersey for the last time, there is a ready replacement in the form of Toner. Be it Iain Henderson or Mike McCarthy who joins him in the second row, Ireland’s lock pairing is in safe hands.
Simply, in recent seasons, Toner has taken the step up from being a solid back-up option at provincial level, to one of the top second rows in the Northern Hemisphere. The onus will fall on the Leinster man to lead this area of the pack after Paul O’Connell’s departure, but judging by the last few years, there is no reason to suggest he cannot deliver on this.
Brian Barry, Pundit Arena.