The Leinster lock showed he has a head for heights during Ireland’s Autumn Tests.
It was a glum day on the Emerald Isle when it was confirmed that Paul O’Connell would miss all of the autumn Tests. The loss of Ireland’s talisman exposed a vulnerability in the squad, and where a year ago the O’Connell/Donncha O’Callaghan second-row partnership had undone the South African lineout, last month was a different story as the world champions defied the odds to win at the new home of Irish rugby. To rub salt in Ireland’s wounds, questions started to be asked about leadership within the squad and where it would come from once the likes of O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll retired.
Enter Devin Toner, who stepped into the No 5 shirt to win his first cap in the 20-10 victory over Samoa last month. The 6ft 10in Dubliner started his rugby life as a ten-year-old at North Kildare rugby club in Kilcock, where he and his older brother, Daragh, were taken by their dad. A Castleknock College student, he also played Gaelic football, but his school coach Mick Quinn had persuaded him to dedicate his time to the oval-ball game by the time he was 16. In fact, it was the former Ireland international who made the youngster realise that a career in rugby could lie ahead.
Toner’s size and athleticism was obvious in his appearances for Ireland Schools and his performances made big news around Dublin, so the Leinster Academy wasted no time in snapping him up in the hope that he would follow in the footsteps of Malcolm O’Kelly and Leo Cullen, who he grew up hero-worshipping. Toner isn’t one to get carried away, however, and his work ethic ensured he picked the brains of his team-mates. “I grew up watching Malcolm O’Kelly play,” he says. “I’ve learnt a lot off Mal and Leo Cullen. The two of them have a wealth of experience, so I’ve just tried to learn as much as I can.”
Toner’s learning curve became slightly steeper last season as Cullen was dogged by injury, pushing the youngster into the spotlight. Coach Michael Cheika gave Toner a number of first-team opportunities alongside O’Kelly and Nathan Hines, the young giant featuring in six Heineken Cup games and helping Leinster to reach the semi-finals. He has been a regular on Leinster’s team sheet this term now that O’Kelly has hung up his boots, featuring in both of October’s Heineken Cup games.
And that experience has helped him make the step up to Test rugby. The Heineken Cup brings a fever similar to that of international rugby for both fans and players alike in Ireland, so playing in such high-pressure games has been the perfect introduction to life on the international scene for Toner – and so far he has taken the transition in his stride. Nevertheless, a first cap is bound to test the steeliest of nerves, and even the easy-going Toner wasn’t immune to pre-match jitters.
“If you asked people about me they’d say I’m a laid-back kind of guy,” he says. “But I was pretty nervous going into that first game, and even on the bench in the next one (against New Zealand). Once the game starts you’re thrown into it, though, and I’d like to think I handled the pressure pretty well.”
With four second-rows in Ireland’s November squad (O’Callaghan, Mick O’Driscoll and Donnacha Ryan the other three), Toner had targeted the second game against Samoa as the time to make his entrance on the international stage, but coach Declan Kidney kept him guessing about his selection for most of the week. “Declan didn’t tell me he was picking me for the Samoa game, he just read out the team,” says Toner. “I was surprised to hear my name, it was brilliant! He wanted me to enjoy it and to give me a surprise because it was my first cap, but usually he chats to everyone individually.”
As if a first Test wasn’t enough to take in, Toner took it upon himself to call the lineouts, sending a strong message about his confidence and leadership skills. And Kidney must have been impressed as he named him on the bench for the games against the All Blacks and Argentina.
Toner is now back at Leinster this month, but there’s no let-up as the focus returns to the Heineken Cup and the province’s next opponents, Clermont Auvergne. Despite finding himself rubbing shoulders with the cream of Ireland’s crop, Toner is all too aware that at the top level you’re always working to keep your place, so he wants to help Leinster win back their European crown to enhance his Test prospects. “I’d like to start most of the games for Leinster and do well there, but when it comes to the Six Nations, if I’m involved in the squad then great but Paulie will probably be back, and Leo will be in the fold as well so I’ll have to see how things go,” he says.
O’Connell may leave big boots to fill but one thing’s for sure – there’s a big man who’s ready and waiting to step into them.
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