From today's Sunday Times
Devin Toner: ‘It was shock on the first night. My wife was angrier than me. I was telling her to calm down’
Toner was bitterly disappointed when Joe Schmidt left him out of the World Cup squad but he has bounced back well with Leinster
Devin Toner was watching TV with his wife when Joe Schmidt called. Sunday evening, September 1, the night before the World Cup squad announcement. It’s customary to describe this the ‘dreaded’ call, except that Toner had zero sense of dread — until Schmidt’s name lit up his mobile.
Only then did he realise that he wouldn’t be going to Japan.
“I was just on the couch with Mary and the name came up and I just showed it to her and I was like: What’s this?” he recalls. “I went to the kitchen and took the phone call and that was it. I went back in and she couldn’t believe it either.
“It was more shock the first night. The next day it started eating away at me.”
“People would probably say that I’m quite level-headed, off the field as well. I probably take things in my stride — a bit too much, probably, people would say!
“But obviously, I was disappointed. Like, I was bitterly, bitterly disappointed. I suppose it was probably anger for a day or two as well but I got over it. It sunk in that I had to move on.”
Toner has moved on, and moved purposefully. Today’s European Champions Cup tie against Lyon will be his 12th appearance for Leinster this season. But when he was requested for interview, he knew we didn’t really want to ask him about Lyon.
He’s not in the business of venting. Big Dev has always been understated, modest. Still, you wonder was he tempted to go public when he received the biggest let-down of his career? Did he run the option past his missus?
“She was a bit angrier than me. I was telling her to calm down. I didn’t vent. I texted a couple of people and then I let it kind of fester the next couple of days.
“Who did I talk to? Well, obviously my wife is up there with the best of them. I think one of the best texts I got was from Rog. Ronan O’Gara sent me a really, really nice text. And that was unexpected so it meant a good bit to me. It was: ‘Don’t let it define you as a player. You’ve loads of years left in you and don’t let it define you. Move on.’ I felt that was really good from him. And then all my contemporaries texted me. It’s good seeing the support from everyone, I suppose.”
The wave of public sympathy for Toner was significant and understandable. Schmidt had selected him more than any other player. Toner had delivered for the coach, been there for all the good days — both wins over New Zealand, all 15 of the Six Nations games that yielded titles in 2014, 2015 and 2018.
In the public perception, this was betrayal. Worse still, Schmidt had selected Jean Kleyn, a South African only recently qualified for Ireland on residency rules, in Toner’s place.
Read through Schmidt’s press conference after Kleyn’s debut — against Italy in August — and you’ll see that he was trying to prepare us for a bombshell.
He eulogised Kleyn’s size and power as a scrummager on the tighthead side and as a ball-carrier. My guess is that Schmidt could visualise Kleyn as a starter in a quarter-final against South Africa.
Toner surely knew that James Ryan and Iain Henderson were nailed on. He knew that Tadhg Beirne had played lock all season for Munster and had the precious ability to double as a six. He still didn’t entertain the notion that Schmidt would leave him behind.
“I was pretty confident in going — which is probably a bad thing as well,” he says. “I should probably be kept on my toes a little bit more. But I thought I was going. I wasn’t 100% confident but I thought that I would have been needed for the lineout calling structure, which is maybe a bit naïve by me.”
Whatever. Schmidt got no value out of selecting Kleyn. Instead, it backfired on him. Kleyn started just once, against Russia, and was anonymous. It added up to a public relations disaster.
Schmidt then made matters worse in his book, with his disingenuous claim that squad selection had been swayed by the possibility of Toner being cited for a high hit on Rob Evans in Cardiff, the day before the final cut. Schmidt had been ‘alerted’ to this possibility and ‘fretted’ about the possibility of a suspension.
If so, he could easily have made the appropriate call to get a steer. It turned out that there was no citing, making Schmidt’s claim even less credible. Toner didn’t buy it.
“The conversation that I had with Joe was: I wasn’t going because they needed a tighthead lock and I didn’t show enough in the pre-season games,” says Toner.
“Coming to the tail end of the conversation, he mentioned something about a high hit but like, he never used it as an excuse that I wasn’t going or why I wasn’t getting picked. So when I saw that (assertion), to me that’s maybe an excuse. When Joe mentioned it, I didn’t know what he was talking about. I didn’t remember a tackle.”
Toner has found comfort in the bosom of Leinster. Leo Cullen — former mentor, now coach — understood his situation. In 2003, he had played most of the season with Ireland only for Eddie O’Sullivan to omit him from the World Cup squad. Four years later, the same coach overlooked him again.
But Cullen could offer more than just empathy. He could offer game minutes. The day Ireland lost to Japan in Shizuoka, Toner played 80 minutes in Treviso. In fact, he played 80 minutes three weeks running, as if to run the anger out of his system. Or maybe it was to disprove the notion that he was past it. “I always tell Leo I’m ready for the 80 if he needs it,” he says, grinning.
He wins his 243rd Leinster cap today, leaving him 15 appearances away from breaking Gordon D’Arcy’s all-time record. He’s still enjoying work, too. It’s partly to do with winning every week, partly to do with the energy derived from playing alongside so many talented youngsters — the likes of Harry Byrne and Scott Penny were six years old when Toner made his Leinster debut in 2006.
“Probably the most pleasing performance this year was the away game in Glasgow,” he says. “It was -3C on an artificial surface so it was like playing on concrete but the young lads stepped up to the mark. Glasgow had their full team out and we went down to a try early but we came back and Cian Kelleher scored in the corner. Such a good feeling in the dressing room afterwards.”
Leinster are overloaded with talented young locks so you could argue that it’s not the best time for a 33-year-old to be negotiating a new contract with Leinster — his last central IRFU deal is up at the end of the season.
Except that Toner is playing well enough to have been included in Andy Farrell’s first get-together pre-Christmas. And this wasn’t just an easy PR win for the new coach. Toner is in the mix.
It wouldn’t be the most forward-looking decision to select him to face Scotland in three weeks’ time and it won’t happen if James Ryan, Iain Henderson and Kleyn are all fit — Ryan is unlikely to play for Leinster against Benetton next week but his calf should have recovered for the Six Nations opener. But Toner isn’t far away, and has no plans to just fade into the background.
“I’m going to go as long as I can,” he says. “I’m 33 and as fit as I ever have been. I’m feeling good, no injuries, so I want to keep going. You never know, I might be a Hinesy [Nathan Hines], still going at 38 or 39. If I’m selected for the games for the Six Nations, I’ll grab it with two hands. I want to play. But if I don’t, I’m safe in the knowledge that I’m playing good rugby and I’ll have some time off in February.
“It’s trying to make the best out of the situation. That’s what I did when I didn’t get picked, and it’s worked out so far.”
Indeed it has.
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