By Brendan O'Brien
Devin Toner doesn’t have many boxes left to tick at club level.
He has played well over 200 times for Leinster, winning four European Cups, a Challenge Cup and a quartet of Celtic Leagues. He has lined out against French opponents on 28 occasions across 14 years of service with his club and yet he has never faced Toulouse.
“Yeah, it just dawned on me there that I hadn’t,” he said this week.
It’s an oddity given the length and breadth of his service but a closer inspection tells a tale. Leinster have met the French giants five times since he made his debut but not since 2011 and it was around then that the man from Meath was bedding into the starting ranks.
There was a point a couple of seasons back when it looked like he was bound for the bench again.
Dropped for some critical games by both club and country, he then bounced back to make a solid claim for a berth in the second-row in blue and green.
“The last year or two I’ve really come into my own a bit more. You hear it all the time, that second-rows get better as they get older, but for me, it’s happened in the last year or two or three that I’ve come into my own and started playing well.
“I can’t put my finger on why it is, I haven’t really been doing much different. It might be just experience, getting to know what does and doesn’t work. Or what I do or don’t do well. It’s hard to put a finger on it.”
His prominence with Leinster is no small thing, what with James Ryan and Scott Fardy also on site, and it will be fascinating to see which way Joe Schmidt leans for the November internationals given the quality of second-row performances across all four provinces lately.
Tadhg Beirne was immense for Munster in Exeter last week, Iain Henderson remains a quality operator out of Belfast, and Quinn Roux has just signed a new contract extension with Connacht on the back of some exceptional displays out west.
It’s worth pointing out that Toner is still only 32. And that he performs in a position which seems to lend itself to longevity more than most. His body is in good shape and he hasn’t yet gotten round to contemplating what life after rugby might look like.
He was just 19 when he made his senior pro debut against Border Reivers in January, 2006. That’s even younger than James Ryan was when the latter first togged out for Ireland — before making his provincial debut — two summers ago.
It’s hardly being disrespectful to the elder man to suggest that Ryan could yet eclipse him in every other way. The St Michael’s graduate carried considerable expectation into the senior ranks but he has already outstripped even the wildest of imaginations about his talent.
Toner did joke that his lineout partner could do with working on his goal-kicking but, while understandably loathe to label him the perfect package, he was unable to even locate an improvement on his graph to date such were the ridiculous heights he was hitting from day one.
“He’s just always getting up and always looking for more work and he has a big engine on him. He’s got a good few 80s (minutes) in a row under his belt and he’s a real asset for us as well as a pack because he’s really good at getting up and stealing ball as well.”
This weekend’s trip to Toulouse will ask questions of Toner, Ryan et al, although it may yet look a tad easier should disciplinary hearings today against back-row Jerome Kaino and prop Lucas Pointud result in any form of suspensions.
Toner is excited at the thoughts of finally getting the opportunity to face a club that was the market leader in European club rugby terms during the first half of his own career, even if they are no longer the scalp they were of old. There may even be a sadness in the manner of their demise on the continental stage this last while. A proud old club that, like Leicester Tigers, has faded in relevance as the nouvea riche of Toulon and Saracens assumed their mantles.
“It’s not sad for me, like,” Toner countered. “It’s cyclical, isn’t it? Every team has their day in the sun. It comes and goes and players come and go. You never know, in a couple of years they could be back up there so it’s all cyclical.”