Grateful Toner at peace with himself and the rugby world
Leinster stalwart on the international periphery for now but focusing on other priorities
Devin Toner: “If I don’t get picked again, I’ve got 70 caps for Ireland. I’ve won a fair bit and I’ve played well when I did.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
When the World Stops Watching chronicles the thoughts and internal mechanisms that can go wonky when sporting careers start to lurch and fail before grinding to a halt. The fallout. Damian Lawlor’s book is quite a raw read.
The athlete’s relevance to the sporting universe they inhabit vanishes, what defines them becomes something else and whatever the something else is, it isn’t as beautifully addictive as it used to be.
The sporting world they had occupied for so long as privileged members of golf, rugby, football, or GAA moves on without them, triggering an existential crisis. Irish teams and squads as safe spaces for the driven is a PhD in waiting.
Devin Toner is far from stripping off his blue team trackie or handing in his GPS for regular pints and life batting questions in the Leinster Fan Zone. But the secondrow, stuck in a selection process that has stopped picking him for international matches, has had time to marinate on the cruelty of passing time.
The lock is far from running around the sitting room with his hair on fire. He has made a deal with himself to be at peace. Montpellier this weekend is fine with Leinster, even if Andy Farrell hasn’t facetimed him with a thumbs-up grin.
Toner wants to play for Ireland again. But at 34-years-old it’s all as much about peace now. Peace is the word. More peace, less panic.
“As you say,” he says. “I am a little bit at peace with it.” It being the unmentionable.
“Obviously Andy rang me before the squad was announced and he said, ‘you’re not in the squad this time but you’re still on the periphery’. It’s a little different looking at the games at home on the couch. But I kind of enjoyed watching lads playing and going well and seeing lads getting new caps. Yeah, it was alright.”
Enjoyed watching? Couch? Alright? Toner is not even thinking of how the Irish lineout might be fixed for the Six Nations. He knows Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson, James Ryan and the rest can unpick that.
He’s not obsessing about the wind or the hooker’s pitch, what jumpers the opposition will be throwing up to challenge. It’s all about eight people, he says. Maybe nine, if the scrumhalf is involved. He can’t flick a switch. Anyway, he’s even not in the Irish camp. It’s not his baby.
“As I said, I’m a little bit at peace,” he says again, disarmingly, just as his audience are looking for a rip him a new one, I’m not done yet with the green shirt theme.
“If I don’t get picked again, I’ve got 70 caps for Ireland. I’ve won a fair bit and I’ve played well when I did. So, I would probably be happy enough. Know what I mean?”
No. Not even a bit. Where is the sense of confusion in the new dystopian non-camp world, where is the grinding angst, the bitterness. Where is the grief for the rolling fairways at Carton House, the sense of loss for the towel-slapping levity of the ‘team room’. Maybe this is Toner in controlled meltdown, all karmic and josh stick. Kiddie talking about it too.
“I was at home for the whole of camp,” he says. “And we’ve a little 12-week-old at home. I would have found it fairly hard to leave my wife and two children to go into camp for eight weeks and not be able to go home. It would have been fairly hard for her not having the help at home. So, it was probably a blessing in disguise that I wasn’t involved. I’m probably a bit at peace to be honest.”
To be honest, Toner hasn’t always been suspended in a stoic, glass-half-full setting. When the 2019 World Cup “happened” that was the time he says. What “happened” was Joe Schmidt decided he was one lock too many for the trip to Japan with Ryan, Henderson, Jean Kleyn and Tadhg Beirne preferred options.
That was hard. He had 67 Irish caps. At the time his international career seemed to have come to an end in a World Cup fireball. But it didn’t. Since then, he has played three more times with Ireland and tapped into the current zeitgeist of chill and Netflix with the kids asleep upstairs.
“Yeah. I’ve had a long time to think about it,” he says. “I’m very realistic that it was going to happen eventually. I try to be optimistic about everything. Not putting on a brave face but being energetic when you come in.
“With a young family at home, it’s hard being away for so long and not being able to help. We kind of said it was a bit of a good thing to be home to help. I’ve got Max as well who was three in September. It focuses you more. So, when you’re outside of Leinster Rugby, you’re not thinking about rugby at all.”
There’s a brand new peaceful theme in town. It goes, when the world stops watching, it doesn’t have to end as well.