Accomplished Devin Toner taking all the challenges in his stride
Leinster and Ireland secondrow now at the peak of his substantial powers
Devin Toner: For a lock who at one point once looked bodily frail, his capacity for physical endurance has now become a feature of his game. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
The rise and rise of Devin Toner.
In the early stages it was like a Redwood falling to the earth in a tackle. A wonder to watch, a 6ft11in frame toppling. The movement and body positions, getting low to tackle, were all works in progress. He will say now that they are still.
But there was always plenty to allow Leinster and Ireland press ahead. Toner has always been a valuable piece of raw material. Now he is much more than that, a poster boy for how careful nurturing can lavishly repay.
This week Toner is locked in to the Leinster second row. Joe Schmidt similarly sees him so at national level. He has grown into an all-round player, with the years of diligence grown into his size and also his sense of ambition.
The lineout is essentially Toner’s domain, his dominance there so etched on people. In the past it seemed natural to wrongly believe he was anything more than a one-trick pony. People and their binary thinking, he was good at that, bad at the other.
But the 2018 version of Toner is a broader, more rounded body of work. He now competes with James Ryan as the first pick lock.
Support lines, breaking tackles, his work load both sides of the ball and carrying. More than once his hands have been shown to be good. Yes, we know now they are the hands of a pianist and basketball player.
For a lock who at one point once looked bodily frail, his capacity for physical endurance has also become one of the outstanding aspects of Leinster engineering.
When the team travel to The Rec this weekend they will also look to Toner to play as an occasional pivot. In that, he says he’s an accidental tourist. But he’s enjoying it.
“It wasn’t suggested to me that I do it. It is a thing that we’re all expected to be able to do,” he says. “It’s not me specifically. I would happen to be in that particular position. You’re scanning where you need to be and, if I’m in that position that gets the ball and hear the call, then I give it.”
It’s a change from endlessly breaking the gain line. Not unlike Tadhg Furlong Toner’s addition to his game keeps defences thinking. He can truck it up okay but often he takes on the space and looks for passing and offloading options.
“I like getting on the ball,” he adds without adding detail. “I back myself.”
Maybe the principal difference now to five years ago is that others back him too.
It will keep Bath thinking. Even from this far out The Rec, with its confined old school pitch and, if the rain falls, a slow surface could make it a tight five sort of match.
“Yeah 100 per cent. Their pack is very powerful, the scrum is going very well, their set-piece is going very well,” says Toner. “I don’t know what the weather forecast is this weekend but hopefully it will be dry enough than a bit more traditional.
“Yeah it is a really nice town, a really nice city, really kinda cramped changing rooms to get changed in. It is a traditional type of rugby town I suppose a hard place to go.”
At the heart of Leinster’s play are the long phases for which they can hold the ball, squeezing all the time and exploiting fractures when they appear.
Ireland do it too and the USA in particular were fearful of the 20 or 30 phases and the constant high tempo churn that Joe Schmidt’s side and Leinster teams can now sustain.
“It’s physically and mentally draining because you’re thinking of where you need to be next and you are scanning everything,” says Toner.
“You’ve a good idea of what’s going to be called and you’re scanning where you need to go – whether you’re going to be a support player, to be on the ball or if you are maybe out the back.
“You’re physically drained by trying to get there. You’re mentally drained thinking about where to go. At the end of a phase of play that that runs to four or five minutes. You are fairly blowing.”
More of that, he says, again rising to another kind of challenge.