The importance of Caelan Doris to this Ireland team can be summed up by the fact that he is the only player who has featured in every one of their games so far in 2023.
He is set to keep that run going when Andy Farrell’s men face South Africa in Saturday’s mouth-watering Pool B contest in Paris. The result could have a huge bearing on the outcome of the group and the likely quarter-final match-ups.
Ireland return to the Stade de France for the first time since their most recent Six Nations defeat, a 30-24 loss to France in February 2022. They have won 18 out of 19 Tests since then, including last November’s 19-16 victory at home to South Africa.
The selected South African team for this weekend contains 11 players who started in Dublin just under ten months ago. Half-backs Manie Libbok and Faf de Klerk, hooker Mbongeni Mbonambi and lock Franco Mostert come in for the rematch.
The try-less first half of that Autumn Nations Series clash was a brutal battle, with Ireland having to make 78 tackles to South Africa’s 36 during the opening 30 minutes. Tries from player-of-the-match Josh van der Flier and Mack Hansen then gave the hosts a lead they never surrendered.
“I think looking back on that game we knew we had to be on it in terms of our defence, in terms of our physicality,” said Doris, speaking from the squad’s Rugby World Cup base in Tours.
“I know it’s a bit of a buzzword but there’s a bit of a mindset that goes with that. That week in Dublin, we took a step up and we know we’ll require the same this week.
“I think if we match them there we’ve a lot of belief in what we can do in terms of our attack. We’ve shown some of that over the last couple of weeks, but it’s a definitely a test and a big step up from what we’ve seen so far.”
Doris and his team-mates will come up against the same back row from the November Test, with South African captain Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Jasper Wiese making up a formidable trio.
They will be aiming to gain the upper hand at the breakdown, and in the process slow down Ireland’s tournament-high average ruck speed of 2.92 seconds. Last November the Springboks won two turnovers and conceded 13, while Farrell’s charges won five turnovers and conceded ten.
It will be a key battleground and Doris is expecting to face an improved ‘Boks outfit, buoyed by last month’s 35-7 triumph over New Zealand at Twickenham. They have won nine of their last 10 Tests, including their last six in a row.
“South Africa have definitely evolved quite a bit (since last year). They were missing a few players back then as well. That game against the All Blacks a few weeks ago, some of their attack was very impressive,” acknowledged the Lacken-born number 8.
“They still have the physical edge, which is in their DNA really, going years back, but they have definitely added layers on top of it. Some of the threats they have out wide with their backs.
“Their forwards, the likes of du Toit and (RG) Snyman, their ability to keep the ball alive and offload after having won dominant collisions.
“Going hard at the breakdown is something we have seen from them over the last while as well. We reckon they will try and disrupt there quite a bit.”
As much as there is a feeling that the ‘Boks have hit a rich vein of form, the same is very much true for Ireland. They come into the middle round of the World Cup’s pool stages as Grand Slam champions and on a record 15-match winning streak.
There have been signs of the evolution of Ireland’s game along the way, and they will undoubtedly have a few tricks up their sleeve for Saturday night. It might take a moment or two of magic as eight of the teams’ last 11 meetings have been decided by six points or fewer.
“I think there’s so much belief amongst this group – and there’s belief that we can still get a lot better,” insisted Doris, who was voted both the Leinster and Rugby Players Ireland Players’ Player of the Year for 2023.
There are two parts to our evolution. Some of it is adding extra bits and new layers like the goal-line drop outs, and then the other part is just getting better at the basics.
“There is a lot of belief in our attack and when we deliver on it, it can cause damage to teams. So, it’s just being more consistent and delivering on that.
Delivering on that in such a big game in Paris in front of 80,000 people – hopefully there will be a lot of Irish there – is just about constantly getting better as a group and believing that we can improve quite a bit. We are always striving for the perfect performance.”
As much as they will have to match South Africa’s famed physicality up front (and deal with the unloading of their forward-heavy bench), Doris reckons the Irish pack have the variety and skills to cause problems for a ‘Boks side that is only eighth for collision success (42%) at this World Cup so far.
“We have good ball-playing forwards. We have multiple threats in that we have good carriers. We also have people who are capable of tipping the ball on, giving passes, giving wider passes.
“So it is not just tuck and carry. There is footwork, passes and the carry threat. (In defence) things like two-man tackles, getting our tackle height right, our tackle entry, all those areas are going to be pretty big this weekend.
“(Their 7-1 bench split) doesn’t actually change too much. We talk about delivering an 80-minute performance, regardless of who we are playing and knowing that some teams target the last 20 minutes.
“We also speak about our bench coming off and not just fitting in but actually taking it up a level, so that will be important this weekend.
“I think it’s been a great pre-season for us, and the lads are probably in pretty optimal shape I would say – some of our best conditioning we’ve seen over the last few years. We back our fitness against most teams and back our smarts as well, so we’re pretty confident in that area.”
Three turnovers won and seven defenders beaten have been some of the highlights of the 25-year-old back rower’s maiden World Cup campaign to date. With Paris calling, he is ready to ramp up his performance levels against the 2019 winners.
At that time four years ago, Doris had spent his first season with Leinster’s senior squad having been promoted early from the Academy due to his impressive displays when captaining the Ireland Under-20s.
He had two seasons with the Ireland U-20s, the second one seeing him work with Paul O’Connell as a coach for the first time. O’Connell’s experience and influence is clearly a huge asset in camp during big weeks such as this.
“It’s interesting because Paulie actually spoke to us earlier and said, ‘On these weeks, you can feel like you need to do way more, but trust in what we have done over the last while. Trust in our good habits, in our training, in our drills’,” explained Doris.
“It’s not that we are just building this week, but what we have built over the last few years. But having said that then, there is a special feeling to the week.
“We know we need to deliver our best and what comes with that is maybe little extra conversations or an extra walk-through in the evening or a bit of extra video, extra visualisation, things like that, just to make sure you are fully across the board.
“But Paulie’s point was, ‘Enjoy the week and when you’re off, you’re off, don’t get over stressed about thinking you have to do way too much this week. A lot of the work is done’.”