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Doris Takes Every Step On The Journey To Test Rugby In His Stride

Doris Takes Every Step On The Journey To Test Rugby In His Stride

Doris (right) made his Ireland senior debut against Scotland in the Six Nations back in February. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

The hamlet of Lacken nestles along the rugged and idyllic north Mayo coastline. The Tithe Cois Trá road runs through the heart of the village, linking the two bordering towns of Killala and Ballycastle, while providing breathtaking views of the the northwest’s landscape and shoreline. The sand runs for miles down the coast, the views of the Atlantic unopposed. An oasis removed from the current distress, a world away from the world as we currently know it.

Caelan Doris only has to step out of his family home and Lacken Bay Strand opens up in front of him, often the only noise for miles the sound of the Atlantic waves crashing off the shore. Depending on the morning, there may not be another person in sight for hours, the tranquility of the surroundings making this isolation in every sense of the word.

Lacken has always been home for Doris and while he gets back to visit as regularly as the schedule permits, he did not anticipate spending his 22nd birthday – last Thursday – back in rural Mayo running shuttles on the beach, or following the training programme he has been prescribed in his father’s garden shed.

“Not ideal,” he laughs. “I haven’t been home with my parents for this long since Third Year in school so it has been strange. But thankfully I had a squat rack and weights installed out the back here about a year ago and with the beach just across the road, I have no shortage of space for running too. I’m just hoping to use this time well and to come back in pretty good shape. That’s all you can do, just focus on what is within your control.”

The enforced break from rugby means Doris will be home for the foreseeable future, too. The number eight could feel particularly aggrieved at the disruption to the season given he had been enjoying a real coming-of-age year with Leinster, and at international level, he had broken into Andy Farrell‘s Ireland squad to win his debut cap in the Guinness Six Nations opener against Scotland. How that late February afternoon, when our chief concern centered around the outcome of the match at the start of the Farrell era, feels like a lifetime ago now.

For Doris, the memories and colour of that afternoon at the Aviva Stadium remain as vivid as ever. His selection at the back of the Ireland scrum a recognition of his superb form for Leinster, the Mayo native recalls the giddy excitement of Test week as a debutant. The conversation with the Head Coach at the start of the week, the phone call to his parents, Chris and Rachel. “I’m starting.” The intensity of training, the camaraderie in camp. The High Performance Centre, Carton House, the Shelbourne, the Aviva, the anthems, the faces in the crowd. And then, cruelly, the injury.

Just four minutes in, and not before Doris’ first involvement in the Test arena had been a turnover penalty in the jackal, his debut was prematurely ended through concussion. It was a terrible shame for Doris on the biggest occasion of his nascent career, his extended family and friends from Mayo and Dublin, sharing his disappointment in the stands.

“Four minutes wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for,” he says. “There were mixed emotions after the game. I was obviously delighted to get my first cap and I had really enjoyed the build-up during the week, but to have my debut cut short after just four minutes was bitterly disappointing. My parents were in the dressing room after the game for when I was getting my first cap but it was just so disappointing the way the game ended for me. I was so happy we won and delighted for everyone but you’re mixing that with your own personal disappointment. It was a strange feeling.”


Through the diligent care of the Ireland medical team, Doris was given the all clear to resume running the following weekend and while he was ruled out of the Round 2 win over Wales in Dublin, the former Blackrock College student was back in the mix for the trip to Twickenham to face England, where he won his second cap at number eight.

“That was obviously a disappointing day as well with the result going against us but I’m sure those experiences will be beneficial for me going forward,” he reflects. “It was a bizarre first Six Nations to be involved in I suppose but being able to look back now, it was incredibly cool to be involved. From my first selection in the training camp for Portugal, to being told by Andy that I was starting in that first game against Scotland.

“I learned so much over the course of the couple of weeks and that Scotland week in particular was very special. To receive lots of nice message from family and friends was a pretty cool feeling and to then experience a home Test week is something I’ll never forget. I tried my best to keep focused but I wanted to enjoy everything and take it all in. It’s a very special moment for any young player, the culmination of all your hard work so far. Although it didn’t go as I wanted, it’ll always be a special day for me and my family.”

Anyone who had the privilege of seeing Doris during his schoolboy years in Blackrock College, or indeed later as captain of the Ireland Under-20s, knew his precocious talent was such that his ascent to Test rugby would come sooner rather than later. It was evident from a young age that he not only possessed the size, skillset and physicality to build a professional career, but also the innate hunger demanded of any player at the elite level.

Doris’ rugby journey started 20 minutes down the road at nearby Ballina RFC, his love for the sport passed down by his father and uncles who had all played during their time in Blackrock.

“I loved growing up in Lacken,” he continues. “I loved the countryside and the fact the beach was just outside. There are only 500 people living here and you’re kind of in the middle of nowhere but it’s what I knew. My parents moved down from Dublin two or three years before my brother was born and they’ve been there ever since. We went to school down the road in Creevagh National School and there were only 35 other kids in the school and just two others in my class.

“But we had a good network of friends and there were plenty of people around our age. We played pretty much every sport and at one stage I remember having a training session or a match on every day of the week.”

Rugby was always number one for Doris, though. And his focus on the oval ball narrowed even further when he moved to the capital to board in Blackrock alongside his brother, who had previously attended The King’s Hospital. The cultural change and acclimatisation process was aided by the dozen or so other boarders, who had all similarly ended up in South County Dublin from rural outposts. In a sense, Doris had to grow up quickly and his maturity – both physically and mentally – was evident on the rugby pitch too.

“Blackrock was the turning point for me, yeah,” he explains. “I loved playing all sports but when I went to Blackrock, rugby just became the number one. I loved my time there, absolutely loved it. Saturday mornings in Ballina had laid the foundations but the main body of my development was done in Blackrock during those six years.

“Going from 35 people in my primary school to 200 in my year alone was a change but the fact there were a group of boarders in the same position helped me and then playing rugby was a big help too. I was in those social circles from the first day, making friends with other lads who had known each other for years through rugby.”

Doris’ development was rapid and his performances an indication of what was to come. Although barely overage for Blackrock’s JCT team, he was winning a Leinster Senior Schools title as a 15-year-old in a side captained by Nick Timoney containing no fewer than six future professionals, including Joey Carbery, Hugo Keenan, Jeremy Loughman and Conor Oliver.

“We beat Will Connors‘ Clongowes team in that 2014 final,” he laughs.

From there, Doris took every step on the ascent in his stride, his journey along the representative pathway to the Ireland Under-20s programme a seamless transition through the grades. His first year under Peter Malone and Nigel Carolan was followed by a second season as captain under Noel McNamara.

“The pathway in place now is class, from schools right up to the Ireland Under-20s,” Doris says. “The professionalism in the underage systems has just gone up and up and it really does ready you for senior level. You can see from some of the rugby the Ireland Under-20s played last year and were playing this year how beneficial it is and how good a programme it is.

“Those two years in the Ireland Under-20s were a great learning experience, learning off the likes of Pete, Nigel, Noel and Paul O’Connell, who was with us for my second year.”

At no stage did Doris’ career arc show any sign of slowing down, the upward trajectory he had been on since those early days in Ballina eventually bringing him to a first senior appearance for Leinster against Connacht at the Sportsground, of all places. But the burden of expectation never weighed heavy on his broad shoulders.

“The last time I had been there was with Ballina for a half-time minis game during a Connacht match,” the Ireland international recalls. “I don’t think I was ever overawed by a challenge. I’m someone who is competitive so at every level, I’ve always wanted more. From a young age at Ballina, I would have wanted to get better and you’re always hungry for more. Coming out of school, your goal is to get into the Leinster Academy and then you hit that goal, you want senior game time and a senior contract. There’s always that mindset of pushing yourself to the next level.”

Even now, with two international caps to his name, Doris – who has never categorised himself as an out-and-out eight, rather someone who can show versatility by also playing at blindside – knows there are areas of his game that need refining.

“Opportunities are more fleeting at the top level so you’ve really got to be ready to take them when they come,” he acknowledges. “Getting bigger and stronger is a key work-on for me and it’s something I’ll get a bit of progress on during this eight-week block at home and then there are more technical things I’m working on too. Things like the lineout and bringing more offloads back into my game are two areas that will be tough to improve on by myself here but will be work-ons for me when we’re back together.”

For now, Doris is focusing on making incremental gains across strength, speed and fitness metrics during the lockdown, while also using the time away from a normally demanding rugby schedule to complete his final year research project, which is due in the coming weeks as he nears the end of his Psychology degree in UCD.

For his thesis, Doris has used his Leinster team-mates as participants in his study to determine whether mental toughness affects a player’s ability to perform as capably away as at home, something his experiences in green over the last couple of months will have also helped towards.

“I got a brief taste of it,” he adds. “And it’s definitely addictive, that feeling of pulling on the green jersey to represent your country. It’s a special feeling and I really hope I get the opportunity to do it again soon.”