Project Devin Toner built on high standards

Leinster secondrow sets sights on nailing provincial position and winning Irish caps


Moments after Jonathan Sexton took leave of the Leinster shed for the last time, he told waiting journalists not to worry about the ethos of the group he was leaving.

“The good thing about Leinster over the last few years is we have replaced everyone that’s left. Rocky Elsom left, Kevin McLaughlin and Seán O’Brien came in. Brad Thorn left, Devin Toner has filled his boots.”

Some compliment.

Thorn is probably the modern game’s most devastating lock around the pitch. Certainly the most durable.

Leinster, in fairness, have yet to adequately replace Nathan Hines with a similarly corrosive foreigner enforcer, while Leo Cullen has not featured this term but the locking department cannot be seen as problematic.

“You can obviously see Dev has learnt a lot from Leo and it is coming through now,” said Les Kiss after last summer’s North American tour. “This was a great opportunity to expose him to this level and ask him to take charge. And he did. He did a fantastic job. He has certainly put his hand up and it will be an interesting conversation in November.”

Partner issue
That conversation of who will partner Paul O’Connell is taking place right now between Kiss, Joe Schmidt and John Plumtree.

Mike McCarthy and Donnacha Ryan will not give way without at least landing a few belts in training. Dan Tuohy and Iain Henderson cannot be ignored either.

“I know, I know, tell me about it,” said Toner last Wednesday. “The squad is going to be announced after this weekend . . . it is in the back of your head. I’d love to be involved, I’d love to get a couple of more caps. I think it stands to me that I can call lineouts.”

Those paying close attention will have shelved preconceptions formed during the 27 year old’s formative time as a professional. Others will not but gone are the new-born foal wanderings, replaced by a steelier edge.

He nimbly slides into a corner chair of the Library Bar in the Central hotel for a chat on a dank afternoon. Otherwise known as “chore day”.

That means immersing himself in his new Dublin 8 surroundings, along with neighbour Fergus McFadden, who’s another welcome addition to what is easily the city’s most vibrant area.

Job one this morning was a defensive lineout review. That’s his gig nowadays. Kevin McLaughlin helps with the defensive aspects.

“I work with Jonno and Leo also helped this week just to see what we have to do in attack.”

They’ll miss Gibbes next season when he moves to Toulon. “Yeah. We will. Obviously it depends who comes in.”

Or sticks around.

“God, I was quoted on that already. I was doing media and someone asked me would Leo be a good coach and I said he would and the headline the next day was ‘Cullen ideal coach, says Toner.’

“Obviously I don’t know what’s going to happen but if he was to take it I think he would be great because he has been doing a lot of that stuff already.”

Height advantage
Maybe it has something to do with the decency of the man, allied by a height advantage so rare in this country, but there has been a prolonged investment in the Toner project.

Now for the pay out.

He’s in good form today. The residue perhaps of last Saturday’s 19-9 victory over the Ospreys in Swansea. “Ah, we were delighted to beat them over there.”

Especially after the Munster performance and the absence of so many names type-set on the teamsheet for so long. Cullen, Brian O’Driscoll, Johnny Sexton or Shane Jennings. The leadership group, basically.

“We didn’t discuss that to be honest because everyone was kind of confident in everyone else. They haven’t been there for most of the season.

“We knew we were crap against Munster. We didn’t front up. We knew we had to go into that game all guns blazing.”

Mike Ross is the latest veteran to cry off with a torn hamstring. Welcome aboard Marty Moore.

“I remember someone asking me last year if there are some new lads coming through. I said Marty because he’s Castleknock and I’m Castleknock. Got to get behind the Castleknock lad. I was sixth year when he was a first year.

“Marty has done awesome. Because he is so short if he feels any pressure he just locks it down. He won’t budge.”

Moore is 5ft 11ins. Short in a Toner context.

Speaking of Castleknock, were you any good at rugby back then?

“No,” he laughs. “I was going through old tapes at home and I found my senior cup games against Terenure and High School when I was in fifth year.

“I was going around with this big scrum cap and just looked so awkward. I won the lineouts and all but around the pitch I just looked crap to be honest.”

An absolute certainty out of touch, that got him picked for age-grade representative teams and he played “about 50” first-class games for Lansdowne. But the toughening and conditioning period took some time.

“It is a big body to grow into,” said Greg Feek 18 months ago. “You look at where Devin was 18 months ago and now and get excited about where he will be in another 18 months.”

Hybrid version
He plays like a hybrid version of Cullen and Mal O’Kelly now.

“When I was training with people my own age, I’m not going to say I wasn’t challenged, but I wasn’t aggressive really either, but on joining the senior squad you realise . . . I was 117 kilos then, I’m 124 now so I’ve put on a good bit. I realised you need to fling your body into rucks to move them. I wasn’t very effective at ruck time but now I try to use my weight.

“Without a doubt Leo has had the most influence on me. When he came back from Leicester he just changed the whole ethos. Hinesy as well did a lot for me. “He’s a c**t,” he adds very matter-of-factly yet with respect.

“You obviously love him when he’s in your team but he just loves niggling you. His offloading ability helped me realise I have to add to all aspects of my game.”

This summer in Toronto he sent McFadden scampering over for a try with a perfect execution of that very skill.

It took a while to get to where he is now. Bumped up to the Irish squad in November 2010, O’Connell was injured, he started against Samoa before coming off the bench for the New Zealand shellacking and Argentina victory.

Then zero international recognition until last season’s Six Nations when Donncha O’Callaghan made way for the Italy game.

In Houston in June he made his bones. Having survived some dodgy opening lineouts, by calling everything on himself thereafter, and a Todd Clever spear tackle, he soared above everyone to claim Chris Wyles’ late 22 drop-out.

That moment ensured Ireland’s most inexperienced team in over 50 years sneaked home 15-12.

Another game he remembers as significant in his progress was back on October 18th, 2008. The RDS Showgrounds: Leinster 41-11 Wasps.

“When Drico got that wonder try.”

When he kicked it over Jeremy Staunton?

“Yeah. Leo had come off injured in the first 10 minutes so I came on and played pretty well. I was involved quite a bit after that.”

Toner entered the fray like every Irish man should against English opponents, even getting the yellow badge of honour in the closing stages.

But it was the tail end of last season when he showed just how influential he can become.

“My personal goals? Get a couple of more caps for Ireland. I want to nail down a starting role in Leinster. So far I have been doing that. Everyone’s goals really.”

Difference is not everyone realises them.