Caelan Doris says their discipline and scrum are two key areas that Ireland want to improve tomorrow afternoon when he captains the team for the first time.
As Andy Farrell’s men lock horns with Italy for the third time in the space of a year, they will want to lower their penalty count with kickers of the calibre of Paolo Garbisi and Tommaso Allan, the 2023 Championship’s third top points scorer, on duty.
Italy are always well stacked in terms of scrummaging power, lining out with the same starting front row from last week’s 27-24 defeat to England. Perpignan tighthead Pietro Ceccarelli made his debut against Ireland back in 2016.
Notably, in Rome last Saturday, the Gonzalo Quesada-coached Italians retained possession from each of their six scrum put-ins, in addition to winning two penalties from England’s four scrums.
Doris steps up as Ireland captain this week, standing in for Peter O’Mahony who is nursing a calf injury. He spoke to the media at the Captain’s Run press conference in the Aviva Stadium earlier today.
Asked about what they want to improve on from the first round victory in France, the Mayo-born back rower said: “The two most noticeable were our discipline, I think we conceded 14 penalties. Quite a few in the second half as well, so that’s probably a more obvious one.
“And then our scrum didn’t fire as well as we would have liked. We see it as a weapon with the individuals we have in the front row. We want that to be a point of difference and a strength of ours.
“The challenge this week is to back up last week with an even better performance this week across all areas. It’s a pretty exciting prospect and challenge to try and do that.”
Five new faces also feature amongst the replacements, including two potential Six Nations debutants in Jeremy Loughman and Harry Byrne, and the returning Jordan Larmour is in line for his first Championship appearance since 2021.
Doris (pictured above with IRFU President Greg Barrett) is clearly enthused to skipper a squad boasting plenty of in-form individuals and smart game managers, admitting: “I think it’s a pretty exciting team, a few new combinations. I think lads have been putting their hands up.
“Craig obviously starting at 9, he’s been class for Munster over the last while. Delighted to see him get an opportunity. Big Joe (McCarthy) goes in the second row again, he’s been class.
“‘Crowler’ (Jack Crowley) at 10, who is another leader. He’s been leading us well and doing the same at Munster so there’s enough experience there and older heads, but there’s excitement over the younger guys too.”
Doris’ previous captaincy experience includes leading the Ireland Under-20s at 2018 World Rugby U-20 Championship in France. Ronan Kelleher, Dan Sheehan, Tom O’Toole, and Harry Byrne, who will all be in the home dressing room tomorrow, were involved back then with the U-20s.
The 25-year-old Lacken man captained Leinster for the first time against Ulster last month, and he has sought advice from those who have led both province and country before during the build-up to the clash with the Azzurri.
“I was even on the phone to ‘Sexto’ (Jonathan Sexton) there during the week. We’re lucky in the squad we’ve got so many leaders in our provinces and when they come into camp too.
“There’s a few key figures for us who aren’t involved this week. I’ve been leaning on them big time, and then the likes of James Ryan, Iain Henderson.
“There’s plenty of leaders in the team for this weekend as well. I’ve definitely leaned on them and they’ve lessened the load for me quite a bit, which has been good.”
Doris has taken a similar route to an Ireland captaincy nod as his Leinster colleague Ryan who, at the age of 24, skippered his country for the first time just over three years after making his debut.
For Doris, his first opportunity to captain Ireland comes only four years after winning his first cap against Scotland. Farrell and Stuart Lancaster, the former Leinster senior coach, both encouraged him to get more involved in the decision-making and leadership side of things.
Stuart Lancaster, over the last number of years in Leinster, would have tried to push the leadership bit out of me, and same with ‘Faz’ in camp over the last number of years.
“I’ve been in the leadership group for a couple of years, but it’s an area that I do want to develop and want to continue to grow, whether I’m in the group or in this role this week.
“It’s an enjoyable part but it does cause a bit of stress. There’s more responsibilities that come with it (the captaincy), but it’s definitely rewarding too.”
And the advice he has been getting from some of Ireland’s most recent captains? “The main one is be yourself,” he replied. “Like, the tendency is seeing Pete and seeing Johnny do such a good job in how they do it, and be thinking, ‘how can I emulate that?’
“But their message was just be yourself, being authentic is the best way to lead. Find my own way to do it, which is challenging at times, but it’s been good.”
In addition, Doris makes the move away from his regular number 8 position to openside flanker. He has started in all three back row positions for both Leinster and Ireland, featuring at openside last year against Leicester Tigers and Italy respectively.
Indeed, he was a try-scoring player-of-the-match when Ireland beat Italy 33-17 in last August’s Bank of Ireland Nations Series opener. That game’s starting back row of Baird, Doris, and Conan is the same as tomorrow’s one.
“I’m pretty familiar with the 7 role from covering it, if it’s me and Josh (van der Flier) with Leinster or Ireland, I would be the back-up 7,” he explained.
“I’ve been in that role and practise it in training quite a bit, swapping in and out with him over the last number of years.
“It’s part of my game as well, that sort of openside, ‘groundhoggy’ bit, disrupting breakdown and making myself a nuisance. I’ve tried to bring that in, whether I’m playing 6 or 8 either.
“I can do it a bit more, I can stick my head into a few more rucks, skill-free this weekend, but I won’t be changing too much.”