Devin Toner has never been one to get above himself.
Quietly-spoken and self-deprecating with it, the 6’ 10” lock is the first to admit that he isn’t what anyone would term a natural athlete. He is a product of an age when second rows were prized more for their beef than for their agility.
He is a different proposition to the more mobile, modern men who inhabit his neck of the woods — the Iain Hendersons and the James Ryans — but he is quick to state his own case in response to the suggestion that the game today may be passing his type by.
“I’m good at restarts. That’s what I want to be good at, and with the secondary stuff, obviously, trying to get my ruck better, clean out, tackle, defence. They all kind of blend together, so over the years, that’s me, basically.”
If the game has evolved, though, so has he.
Hitting rucks at a lower angle has always been an issue for a man of his height, but he has always had decent hands and it has been noticeable that he is used far more now as a receiving option off the back of a ruck than was the case before.
He credits Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt for that. Such routes weren’t a part of his job description when he made his debut for Ireland in 2010, but then his workload was light in every way for a long time, given he waited 15 months after his third cap that autumn until his fourth came in the 2013 Six Nations.
It was Schmidt who took his career to the next level.
The Kiwi placed his trust in Toner towards the back end of his time in charge of Leinster, elevating him from a decent Plan B to a man who would go on to be the lineout caller for club and country on the biggest stages.
“Then, when he came into Ireland, I remember getting picked to start the first Six Nations game and I was blown away. Like, ‘jeez what’s going on?’ Then, I kept getting picked. It’s brilliant, obviously, when you have the confidence of the coaches. It’s really good for your own self-confidence.”
Toner won seven caps in three seasons under Declan Kidney. He has added 49 in the five campaigns since. Ireland have played 53 Tests in Schmidt’s time and Moynalvey’s finest has started in 43 of those and come off the bench in another half-dozen.
The four games he has missed in that time? Two powder-puff, warm-up games for the 2015 World Cup, the meeting with Canada at that year’s tournament and one other date with the North Americans in November of 2016.
His resilience and dependability have been staggering.
Toner has never been absent through injury in Schmidt’s era with Ireland. He is the new Jamie Heaslip, in that regard.
Yet, there were signs this time last year that his time at the top of the lineout was approaching an end. With England visiting Dublin for the last round of the Six Nations, Schmidt looked to Henderson and Donnacha Ryan, instead.
Then, Leo Cullen followed suit by benching him for the Guinness PRO12 semi-final against Scarlets.
All of which prompted a response.
By the time the current season got underway, Toner was weighing in eight or nine kilos lighter, so the new and improved model has been manoeuvring its way around the park with greater ease and effectiveness.
Toner started the November rout of South Africa, but it was Henderson and Ryan who got the nod for the subsequent win over Argentina and again when the side was unveiled for the Six Nations opener in Paris.
There was a sense of a reversion to the status quo yesterday when, with all three fit, Toner was named as Ryan’s partner for tomorrow’s game against Scotland, though the man himself understands that he probably isn’t back in for good.
“He has to look at the bigger picture. If you’ve got someone of the talent of James Ryan, you have to play him. You have to get him experienced to look towards the World Cup. You have to get Hendy experience and you have to give me games, as well. It’s just a balancing act.”
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