Landmark achievement within Devin Toner’s long reach
The 6ft 11in secondrow grew up wanting to fit in but soon learned to be as big as he is
Devin Toner remains an important part of the Leinster squad. File photograph: Inpho
The milestone is within reach. One more appearance will see Devin Toner pull alongside Gordon D’Arcy (261) as the most capped rugby player in Leinster rugby history with the promise that the cohabitation will be a brief affair given the stretch in a season that currently harbours many more matches.
Injury and selection remain potential impediments to alter the narrative but few would begrudge the 34-year-old secondrow access to the landmark achievement, a little over 15 years since wearing the blue jersey for the first time in January, 2006 in a victory over the Border Reivers at Donnybrook.
His introduction to a sport that would become a profession started with the Under-12s in North Kildare. There were no family genes in the game. His late father, Peter took one look at Devin and decided that rugby might be the perfect outlet for a son that was literally head and shoulders above his peers.
American actress Sigourney Weaver once said that “being tall has a major impact in general. It takes some courage to be as big as you are, to live up to it and not be intimidated by the graceful tiny people.” That sentiment would have resonated with the young Toner.
Now six foot 11 inches, the precise physical attribute that helped to frame his rugby career was less desirable when he was young. Most children want to fit in, not stand out. By the age of six he was taller than his brother, Aaron, 18 months older and it represented a yardstick of sorts in his mind.
He explained: “I wished I was able to blend in to be honest. I do remember feeling awkward. I hated crowds and walking around, didn’t even like going to the shopping centres because I always stood out. I didn’t go to many discos or go out or anything like that because I was quite self conscious.
“I was never thin; I was always tall and chunky. One of my nicknames in primary school was chunky. My weight went up with my age. When I was 12, I was 12 stone and a size 12 shoe, when I was 13 I was 13 stone and size 13 foot, 14 and so on; thankfully the shoe size stopped at 15,” he laughed.
Toner’s initial sporting inclination had been Gaelic games, football with the local junior club Moynalvey and a little bit of hurling with Kiltale of the same parish. It was a progression from the school playground to the nearby pitches until rugby materialised as an option. If North Kildare provided the introduction then Castleknock College developed that aptitude and talent.
Former Ireland outhalf Mick Quinn coached Toner in fifth year and suggested he think about rugby after school. He was chosen for Leinster trials but still hadn’t outgrown his shyness and initially found that environment “intimidating because I wasn’t very outgoing.” He pushed through.
In sixth year he made the Leinster and Ireland Schools teams, touring Australia (2004) with the latter, alongside Rob Kearney, Fionn Carr, Johnny Sexton, Duncan Williams, Seán Cronin and Billy Holland. Toner went from sub academy to academy in Leinster, earning the princely sum of €333 per month. After a year he was given a development contract worth in the ballpark of €18,000 per annum, his only previous job – secured by his mum, Anne – a summer labouring with a local builder Cyril Maguire.
Fellow Castleknock old boy Aidan McCullen helped him to settle, Malcolm O’Kelly too. He recalled: “I do remember Mal [O’Kelly] being very nice to me. He spoke to me about how he approached weights as a tall man, telling me: ‘other people are going to be able to lift a lot more than you; know that you can’t and don’t break your back trying.’”
At Castleknock Mick and Charlie Quinn infused belief, supporting his growth, so too the Leinster academy manager at the time Collie McEntee, while Gibbes taught him how to use his body and the importance of being physical. Players too helped him to evolve; he loved playing with Paul O’Connell, learning from him. And then there was Leo Cullen.
Returning from his stint at the Leicester Tigers Cullen, the teammate was pivotal in furthering Toner’s education, a relationship that has endured to the present day, albeit with the new dynamic of coach and player. “Leo was probably the biggest [influence] on me, just in terms of lineout calling and learning off him to be honest,” Toner said.
Cheika rarely spared the rod with his old school, ‘tough love’ philosophy. Toner admitted: “He was gruff, tough on the young guys but he got the best out of everyone to be honest. I did have hiccups in our relationship from time to time.
“I remember we got hammered by the Scarlets in the RDS one year. I played for 10 or 15 minutes and got smashed in one carry, gave a poor pass in another. He called me out in the meeting the following week, ‘this is f***ing s***; this is absolutely unacceptable.’
“He also called me in and showed me instances of what I did well; ‘this is good, this is how you do it.’ He embedded it in my mind about what he wanted from me. He was big about physicality and using my size.”
In 2010 Toner made his Ireland debut against Samoa and would go on to win 70 caps, to date the final three of which were in last season’s Six Nations Championship. Joe Schmidt, who had coached him at Leinster, selected Toner for all bar a handful of that number when the New Zealander switched into the Ireland role.
“He gave me my first shot at being first choice. He was brilliant for me. He liked dependability and I think I brought that for him. Set piece and re-starts were so important to his style of play so he wanted someone who would deliver them which I was able to do.”
It was Schmidt though that handed Toner his most crushing disappointment, omitting the secondrow from the 2019 Rugby World Cup squad. The phone call was difficult, painful from both perspectives. Toner was numb. “I was quite shocked not to go.”
Andy Farrell called ahead of last year’s Six Nations. The reception Toner received from the supporters at the Aviva stadium in the first of those three games before the hiatus due to the Coronavirus pandemic is something he’ll always treasure. He’s at ease with the fact that they will probably represent the last few bars of a swansong in green.
Corralling a 15 year career into a few sound bites is impossible for a player who won six Pro14 titles, four Champions Cups, one Challenge Cup as well as three Six Nations championships, including a Grand Slam but he alights on a few that meant more on a personal level.
“It is hard to look past the 2018 final against Racing 92. That was my fourth Heineken Cup but it was the first where I’d started and so it meant a lot more to me.” His Ireland debut in 2010 meant a great deal to the tight knit Toner family, the late Peter, Anne, Aaron and his sister Emma in terms of the occasion but there was arguably another Test that was more poignant.
He explained: “Dad passed away in 2016 and we went on tour to South Africa that summer. We won the first test, the first match won by Ireland on South African soil. I got man of the match in that one. I was able to dedicate it to dad which was brilliant. The All Blacks in Chicago was special, so too the win over them in Lansdowne Road.”
He’s not ready to call time on his rugby career just yet. His contract is up at the end of the season and he will play on, somewhere. “In an absolutely perfect world I would love to stay in Leinster for another year or two. If the worlds don’t align I could see myself playing somewhere else.”
He has broached the subject with his wife, Mary, a supportive and encouraging presence - son Max and baby Grace are at an age where it would be feasible - from day one of his rugby career. “I would absolutely consider it. I even think my missus would like to do it. I think she is in the mood for a bit of a challenge.”
That’s for another day. There are matches to be played and won, more silverware at stake. Leinster will need to stand tall in the coming weeks and months just as Toner learned to do when it mattered.