Leinster’s tradition of having departing players lift a trophy has been frequent enough in recent years to become a formality. Sean O’Brien had the honour with the 2019 Pro14 title, Rob Kearney and Fergus McFadden likewise in 2020. Last season, it was the turn of Devin Toner, Michael Bent and Scott Fardy after victory over Munster in the Pro14 final.
The only problem was that Toner didn’t actually leave. Two weeks after the customary farewell, it was announced that he had signed on for another year.
“I thought I was leaving,” admits Toner from the Barbarians camp in Spain, where he will get one last game on Saturday before going through with his retirement.
“At that stage I didn’t have a contract. Leo [Cullen] said that there wasn’t much for me. I was on the verge of moving but they quickly saw that there was a shortage of secondrows and that they actually needed me.”
It’s a good thing Toner got the customary farewell when he did, seeing as this year was Leinster’s first trophy-less campaign since 2017. The secondrow is the province’s record appearance holder on 280, while his medal cabinet also warrants listing: seven Pro14 titles, four Champions Cups and one Challenge Cup in the blue of Leinster, a Grand Slam and two other Six Nations titles in the green of Ireland. Only Cian Healy had as many medals in this year’s Leinster squad as Toner.
Toner did start in Leinster’s last trophy-winning outing back in 2021, but game time this season has been harder to come by. He was consigned largely to URC appearances and the odd stint on the bench in Europe, the last of which came in the last-16 shellacking of Connacht in the Aviva back in April.
For the later stages of the Champions Cup and the URC quarter- and semi-finals, Joe McCarthy leapfrogged him in the pecking order. Not that limited involvement in the business end of the season grated on Toner.
“Big Joe McCarthy is going to be a great player for the next 10, 15 years,” says Toner. “He’s a bit of a lump, good ball carrier, he does the basics well and I think he will be a very good player.
“I naturally saw it [less game time] coming over the year. You kind of go with it and you see the writing on the wall. I just viewed the year as, ‘I will do my upmost best when I get picked and I will train to the best of my ability.’ I did a lot of work prepping the lineout for the lads to train against; it’s very much, a cliche, but it is a whole team effort.”
It is the lineout for which many fans will most remember Toner and all of his 6ft 10in.
Yet to label him as one-dimensional would be harsh. Keith Earls’s try against England off a Jack Conan long lineout flick was one of the better tries Ireland have scored in recent years. Yet it was born in the RDS, back in 2013 when Leinster beat Biarritz in the Challenge Cup semi-final.
Toner plays the role of Conan, acrobatically leaping to gather the ball in the air and deftly offloading to the onrushing Isa Nacewa, before “Jamie Heaslip scores in the corner”, Toner interjects immediately. He remembers the moment as well as anyone. “I always backed my hands. I always had a good enough skillset.”
Despite moments like that, he is more than happy to embrace his legacy as Leinster and Ireland’s set-piece specialist.
“I’m happy to be known as the lineout expert. I don’t mind that title, obviously I know that’s why I was picked in the first place. I needed to deliver that. You always like to hear what you’re good at.
“I was never going to be the one making breaks or scoring tries, I did the dirty work and the stuff you don’t see. I’d be happy enough if my team-mates knew I did everything I could.
Given how integral Toner was to the set-piece, and how, of all the coaches he worked with, Joe Schmidt probably placed the greatest emphasis on set-piece detail, it isn’t a surprise to hear Toner recall his time under the Kiwi fondly.
“I got on well with everyone but Joe was the one who picked me to start and gave me my start in rugby, for Leinster and Ireland. I was able to deliver for him. What he wanted was set-piece ball, he wanted someone who could catch restarts, he wanted someone who could do all the work that a secondrow needs to do. I suited the way he wanted to play.”
Yet it was Schmidt who infamously dropped Toner for the 2019 World Cup, instead opting for the tighthead braun of Jean Kleyn.
“No need to drag it out. You get over it.”
“That was difficult just for not getting picked. It wasn’t more so just because it was Joe. He said he needed a tighthead lock, he didn’t elaborate that much and I didn’t want to stay on the phone very long with him, once you hear you’re not going.
“No need to drag it out. You get over it.”
Toner reveals his nature as a Schmidt-style, detail-orientated player when asked to recall his two international tries, the second of which came during Ireland’s tour of South Africa in 2016; it is a very Schmidt-like detail that he remembers of the score in Johannesburg.
“I remember the tries, absolutely, there’s only two of them! The South Africa one was a kick through and then Andrew Trimble had a class clear-out of a ruck before Rhys [Ruddock] popped it to me.
“Any time Joe did reviews he would go back to why something happened, why we got that ball, why we scored in the first place. Then it was because of the clear-out from Trimby. If it wasn’t for that we wouldn’t have got the ball or scored the try.”
Post-retirement, Toner has already stated his desire to stay away from coaching. Time to return to a normal family life before a new job starts in September. That month also marks the birthday of his eldest son Max, who will be five. Old enough to remember seeing his old man in action?
“Whether he remembers or not I don’t know,” admits Toner. “At least I got him out on the pitch on the Aviva a few times. It’s not seen at all by anyone else, the stuff wives and girlfriends go through, especially when you have kids. It’s time to spend more time with [wife] Mary and the kids, getting weekends back, being able to plan holidays and enjoying that.”
A rugby holiday with the Baa-Baas before many more family ones to come. Of all people, Toner deserves them.