It is one of those things about which Devin Toner need not have been reminded.
It was September 2019 and Joe Schmidt was the coach in charge of the Irish squad. The first line of the news report in The Irish Times told the entire story. The IRFU have formally confirmed the 31-man squad they have submitted to World Rugby for the World Cup in Japan and Toner is one of the surprising omissions, it said.
Almost four years ago Schmidt opted for Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson, Jean Kleyn and James Ryan as his four travelling locks.
Despite his lineout and restart expertise and being an ever-present player for Schmidt over his 6½ years as Irish head coach, the 33-year-old, who had played in 60 of the coach’s 70 Tests in charge, missed out to the recently qualified South African-born Kleyn.
This week it was Kleyn, who had played so well against Stormers in Munster’s United Rugby Championship (URC) win last weekend in Cape Town, that was left out of the 42 players Irish coach Andy Farrell announced in a summer training squad for the Rugby World Cup.
“I wasn’t surprised really,” says Toner of this week’s selection.
“I didn’t really know what I was expecting. Faz [Farrell], he stuck with a lot of people, a lot of lads who have done him well over the last year or so. There was obviously a lot of Munster lads that have been playing well over the last couple of weeks who are very disappointed. But everyone who is in the squad has been playing very well too. So, it’s a squad that he trusts he has gone with. Not surprised really with any of the calls.
“I don’t think there is an argument on who he picked. He has a lot of trust from everybody and he has a lot of trust in his squad. Him and his management team have delivered the goods over the last year or two so everyone will trust in him and the squad he picks. I don’t think anyone has an argument against it.
“The argument is if something happens, if they don’t get as far as they would like. But in my eyes I don’t think there is an argument because he has picked a team he trusts. Everyone in that squad has delivered in the last year or two.”
There is an argument that loyalty to players can be a weakness. When Warren Gatland was parachuted in to replace Wayne Pivac in the Wales coaching job for this year’s Six Nations Championship, his default position was to select old hands, who he had relied upon in the past.
Subsequently Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric, who he selected in January, announced their retirements from international rugby in May.
While loyalty was baked into Farrell’s selection cake, he hasn’t recalled old soldiers. The players he has picked are the ones who have been performing and winning for him.
“There’s loyalty but there’s performance as well,” says Toner. “Everyone has performed. There’s not one person that you can single out and say he hasn’t had a good year. Everyone who has ever got their chance for Faz in the Ireland team has done well. That’s really healthy for a squad.”
Nor is there the expectation that players in the current 42 will ‘survive’ a summer of rugby including a series of pre-world cup friendlies against Italy, England and Samoa. The disappointed players, who were close to being picked will have been told to stay close, stay healthy and make sure their passport is up to date. It’s a cut-off point okay, but there is no absolute finality about the squad.
“Oh yeah, absolutely, the whole shebang, yeah, ‘keep fit, you’re still in our minds, we’re still thinking of you, there’s always going to be an injury, keep your passport ready’, and I was keeping ready,” says Toner of 2019.
“There’s obviously a standby squad, and you do need to keep fit and ready. First of all, I needed to keep fit because I was playing with Leinster and then second of all if there is any injury you do have to be [training]. It does happen, there are going to be injuries. Absolutely, there are always injuries.”
So, there may yet be a pathway for players such as Kleyn, flanker John Hodnett, who was player of the match in the URC final, out-of-favour Joey Carbery, or talented outliers like Munster centre Antoine Frisch, who may have felt their form warranted an opportunity in this of all years. On that Toner takes a stoic view.
“They are going to get a shot at some stage,” he says. “It just wasn’t their time and who do you omit, I suppose, because of them?”