Devin Toner is already the proud owner of three Heineken Cup medals and yet there is a sense that a first Champions Cup trinket would outweigh them all.
In a game where some coaches have taken to describing their replacements as ‘finishers’, Toner’s European history, allied to his reflections on it this week, is proof that there is no substitute for starting.
He was 22 when he sat on the bench for the duration of the decider against Leicester Tigers in Edinburgh. Two years later and he bagged just over two minutes at the back end of the comeback against Northampton. Then he signed for 22 against Ulster in 2012.
Both deciders were all but over by the time he made an entrance.
“It is a lot different this year because it is a different group and I have played a bigger role,” he said of this week’s final, against Racing 92. “I have started a lot of the games coming into it so a win at the weekend would be huge for me.”
In all, Toner featured in 13 of the games across Leinster’s three successful Heineken campaigns but these were the days when he would invariably fall down the pecking order when it came to the crunch.
Leo Cullen runs through all three line-ups like a pillar or rock and the quality of his partners — Malcolm O’Kelly, Nathan Hines and Brad Thorn – is worth noting when it comes to examining just why Toner was the fall guy.
The Meath man’s career took off in the years after.
It was the 2012-13 season when he first began to work a groove for himself in the Irish team and he played all 80 minutes as Leinster signed off the Joe Schmidt era with a convincing defeat of Stade Francais in the Challenge Cup decider.
He’s 31 now and, though he could yet lose out to a Scott Fardy/James Ryan combination in the second row in Bilbao, he is approaching this final with a great deal more ownership than was the case of old having started every European game this term.
“Those past years, Leo was in charge of the lineout and everything. He obviously is still a little bit in charge of it now as coach but a lot of the senior players will take ownership of it for that area. As one of the older players, I would feel a little responsible.”
Whatever the starting duo, the task awaiting them on Saturday is enormous given the presence in the French ranks of Toner’s old Ireland teammate Donnacha Ryan and Leone Nakawara, whom he knows well from the Fijian’s days with Glasgow Warriors.
Together, they made life hellishly difficult for Munster in the semi-final in Bordeaux late last month, their willingness to contest ball in the air putting pressure on Niall Scannell’s lineouts and on his targets when competing for clean, usable ball.
“They are very good but it’s not just them, it’s their back row as well. They have one of the best defensive lineouts in the league. The best. And they are brilliant at getting up in the air, brilliant at mirroring, especially with (Yannick) Nyanga in the back row.
"He is very athletic. Donnacha: a lot of us have played with him for a good few years with Ireland and he would know how I run a lineout and I suppose I know how he runs a lineout as well. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. Do I bluff him or do I not bluff him?
“At the end of the day, a lineout is all down to the drills that you do. It is all about the throw, it is all about the jump, it is all about the timing. If we strip it all back to basics, if we get our drill right, we should be okay.”
Toner has experienced Ryan as friend and foe given the latter’s Munster allegiances although it took time for them to dovetail with Ireland, the Nenagh man replacing his Meath colleague on Toner’s Test debut, against Samoa, in 2010.
They had managed only eight minutes on the field together — against Scotland in 2013 — before finally building a partnership in and around the 2015 World Cup and through to last year’s Six Nations championship.
Toner’s affection for his old partner in crime is clear.
“When he was here, he was an everyday nice guy. I got on really well with him. He’d talk the hind legs off a donkey. He was really good. Even if he was injured and not involved, he would always be helping out, always be in your ear, telling you what might work, what mightn’t work.
“When we were at Ireland, we would be coming up with calls and he would say, ‘oh yeah, you did that two years ago with Leinster’. ‘I don’t even remember that. How do you remember it?’ He puts his homework in.”
Like Toner, Ryan knows what it is to exist on the fringes come the biggest of European days given the 34-year didn’t make it off the bench 10 years ago when Munster edged Toulouse 16-13 in Cardiff.
Only one of them will be rewarded for their patience and diligence this weekend.
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