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Devin Toner makes height count

By Ruairdri O'Connor

A few weeks after the Six Nations came to a conclusion in Paris, Devin Toner received a gift that both reminded him of his past and celebrated his present.

They were doing some renovations at Castleknock College and the old lockers were being thrown out. Well, not all of them. Art teacher Darran Shields had an idea. He rescued three of the locker doors and turned them into commemorative pieces for the three men involved in the Championship win who had once attended the school – Ireland manager Mick Kearney, prop Marty Moore and Toner.

On the back of the second-row's version was inscribed, 'Devin Toner, class of 2004'. A decade on and he's not doing so bad.

Part of the routine with Joe Schmidt's Ireland is the attention to detail needed to perform your duties on the pitch.

A bit like school, players have to have their homework done when they come in in the morning.

On the pitch, Toner's remarkable height gives him an advantage, but off it he has another edge over his fellow players.

"I've got a good memory," he says with an almost embarrassed laugh. "So I can remember stuff a lot better than some other people. I'm confident that I can remember stuff the next day, so I can switch off and relax for the night and then get on the laptop in the morning for a little refresher.

"It was quite handy at school! The thing was, I didn't study. People were very annoyed with me because of it. If I had have studied I'd have done a lot better than I did."

Given his 6ft 11ins frame, Toner has never had any hassle standing out from the crowd. At school, he was the go-to man in the pack and represented Leinster and Ireland Schools alongside Rob Kearney, Darren Cave and Johnny Sexton who are all here in Argentina with him.

He was a marked man, the focus of the opposition's line-out strategy and, at times, he struggled with it. "I think so, in school it's a bit like you throw it to the tall guy, and I was calling the line-out as well, so I was calling it to myself and I'd have someone going up quickly beside me," he recalled.

"At that stage, I didn't really understand the line-out too well, I would have lost a good few, because if you have someone going up beside you and the throw is not right, it doesn't matter how tall you are. If the ball is down at your midriff, you're going to lose it. but that's where I learned."

He doesn't lose many these days; Ireland's line-out was the best in the Six Nations and, against Argentina last week, they added an aggressive defensive element to it, too, disrupting plenty of Pumas ball.

Toner's emergence as a top class international has come at the right time for Schmidt, whose decision to include him in the two finals at the end of last season was, the player says, a large factor in his increased confidence.

For years, he watched Nathan Hines and Brad Thorn start the big games alongside Leo Cullen, but that backing helped him kick on. And, while he wasn't playing, he was soaking up the knowledge from those around him.

Talk to Toner's team-mates and they describe the man from Moynalvey, Co Meath as a quiet character whose shyness was apparent when he first came into the dressing-room.

However, the backing he has got has seen the 27-year-old puff his chest out a bit more and he has made an active effort to be more vocal around the set-up.

Last summer, he was handed responsibility for Ireland's line-outs on the tour of North America and he responded with a heroic effort in Houston where the tourists were in real danger of suffering a rather humiliating defeat to the United States until a combination of Peter O'Mahony and Toner dragged them over the line.

While he speaks about the need to grow into his body, off the pitch, he is growing in stature too.

"Last year's tour was good," Toner explained.

"The Lions weren't there, so they had a core group of leaders.

"Enda McNulty was with us and we had meetings around leadership, workshops and that kind of really stood to me as well.

"It gave me confidence to speak up and say what I thought in meetings, Pauly has some really good ideas around line-out and mauls, but we've done pretty well at Leinster and I've brought my own ideas in and he listens a lot."

Today, in Tucuman, he brings his best season as a professional rugby player to a close. Now one of the first names on the teamsheet, how will he build on the season that had almost everything?

"I'm going to take a break," he said. "Once you start into pre-season you're back into it and I'll be trying to build on it? I'll do the same as I did this season, I won't change much."

After the season he's just had, why would he?

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