Opportunity comes knocking for Toner

If reports from New Zealand this week are accurate, then 38-year-old Brad Thorn will be following up his three-month stint with Leinster earlier this year with a swansong of a season back on home soil with the Highlanders.

Thorn, a Rugby World Cup winner with the All Blacks in 2011, has a contract with Japanese club Fukuoka Sanix Blues due to expire in February, which would be just in time to saddle up for the next Super Rugby campaign.

The capture of Thorn by Joe Schmidt was perhaps one of the most savvy moves made by the Leinster coach since his arrival in Dublin in 2010. But the lack of a big-name replacement over the summer has again turned the focus inwards. True, Quinn Roux and Tom Denton have been drafted in, but it is impossible to overstate the importance of the current campaign for Devin Toner, who has been on the books for six years without ever cementing a first-team place.

An unused replacement when the province won its first European Cup against Leicester in Edinburgh, he was afforded a handful of minutes in the defeat of Northampton in Cardiff and another 22 last May when Ulster were trumped in Twickenham.

Leo Cullen has been a pivot running through all three successes but Toner has had to play second fiddle as Mal O’Kelly, Nathan Hines and finally Thorn started ahead of him in games that mattered most. In all, the province has six locks in the first-team squad — Cullen, Toner, Roux, Denton, Damian Browne and Mark Flanagan — but the lack of a Hines or Thorn has been flagged as one of the greatest threats to their hopes of a tournament threepeat.

At 6’ 11”, Toner is a different animal to the naturalised Scot and the Kiwi but he showed signs of improvement last season around the park in his tackling and breakdown work and even began to chip in with the odd try after four barren seasons.

His lineout abilities remain his calling card, of course, but Toner’s input will surely be crucial if Leinster are to progress past the now annual challenge of Clermont Auvergne and push towards the European decider yet again.

Leinster have invariably been professional in recent times, individually and collectively, but the 28-point loss to Connacht two weeks ago still reverberates around the team’s training base. Painful though the visit to the Sportsground was, it serves as a warning as to the consequences when standards drop ahead of a European campaign in which their status as back-to-back champs leaves them sporting a rather large bullseye on their backs.

First up, at the RDS this Saturday, is an Exeter Chiefs side skippered by Bruff’s own, Tom Hayes. It will be the English side’s first assignment in the Heineken Cup.

“They have a backbone of a couple of players and they’ve been to a few battles together so it’ll be tough,” says Toner. “They’ve nothing to lose.”

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