LIVING IN THE here and now is no great challenge for Devin Toner.
A 6′ 11″ heavy-hitting lock, but one of the softest-spoken forwards around. He is second on Leinster’s all-time appearances list, but he might blush if you called him a legend of the province. He is the primary line-out caller for club and country, but few mark him down as a set-piece nerd.
When he’s at work he’s going full whack. When he’s off and at home, rugby matters are pushed way onto the backburner.
When he suffered a knee injury n the Pro14 semi-final win over Munster, there was just a brief few seconds of anxiety over what it might mean for his World Cup prospects.
Conor Murray consoles Toner as he prepares to depart through injury. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
“It does go through your mind. I had never done my knee. I heard a bit of a pop,” says the second row as Energia and the IRFU announced a five year deal to give the AIL a sponsor.
“But because I was able to walk off and the lads knew early enough it was a medial – loads of lads have done it before – they said ‘yeah, five or six weeks’.
Five and a half weeks on, the Meathman feels like he is returning to the peak of his powers. He jumped in a line-out yesterday as Ireland’s pre-World Cup training camp moves through a second week.
Mauls and other contact sessions have kept him in a watching brief, but he is hopeful that he will back in the thick of bodies when the squad regroup after the players are sent away on holiday next week with training plans.
Over the years, Toner’s easy brand of patience hasn’t been required often on the road to recovery after injury. Across all sports, there is a perception that big men come with a big list of maintenance and re-fits. But until this season, Toner has been as close to an ever-present as rugby can provide.
This weekend he will turn 33, but he’s not agonising over whether his age profile helped to bring about the injuries which brought his Six Nations grinding to a halt after game one and then denied him a run in the Pro14 final.
More a case of being due a significant knock after riding out so many previous issues.
“The ankle happened in the Six Nations and they said there was 10 years of damage in it and that I needed to get it fixed up. It’s never felt better now.”
He adds: “I’d rolled it a few times, y’know. I’ve done ligaments once or twice. That’s basically it. There’s a few loose bodies they had to take out, that was all.
“I’ve got a 20-year-old ankle now!”
Young joints, perhaps, but an old head may well have helped Toner hit higher and higher standards of performance while Ireland, as a team, grew more potent around him.
“There’s nothing I can pinpoint. Consistency, being confident in my own ability, confident in what I’m able to do.
“I’ve said it before: having a kid is different as well. When you go home, you switch off completely. When I go home, I don’t think about rugby at all. On my days off, I don’t think about rugby at all. I’ve got (son) Max and (his wife) Mary.
Energia, one of Ireland’s leading energy suppliers, today announced its official partnership with the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU). This five-year partnership will see Energia become Official Energy Partner to Irish Rugby and title sponsor of both the Men’s and Women’s All Ireland League (AIL) competitions. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
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“I don’t know if that has added to my performance or has added to how I play, but it could be a factor.
“When you’re younger, you’ve a lot more time on your hands to worry about everything; you have a lot more time to think about losses, to think about everything.
“It is a very big change in dynamic. Earlier on in my career, you’re worrying about: ‘Oh my God, am I going to get my contract renewed? Am I going to be able to get to that next level? Am I going to be able to get by that fella in my position?’”
That last question hasn’t completely gone away. Competition is an inevitable performance driver and Toner chucks in Jean Kleyn’s name for good measure when chatting about the competition for places in the row alongside Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne and you know who.
“I’m not going to say ‘oh James Ryan’s come in and I’m playing better’. It’s not really happening like that.
Toner takes a line-out against England during the Six Nations this year. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland
“It’s probably a sub-conscious thing in my own head, that I need to start getting my own game better. Being comfortable in what I can do, knowing what I can do and being comfortable where I am in my career I’m able to just enjoy it a bit more and just focus on playing. Overall, I’ve been really happy.”
With good reason too. A return to full fitness is just around the corner and his IRFU contract has another year to run. No sense in worrying about what comes after that until he is done with the World Cup – because 2023 will be beyond even his length reach.
He adds: “I don’t see me being involved in the next World Cup. I’m pretty sure that, if I’m involved it will be my last World Cup.”
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