Great players retire but great players also arrive. So it was that after Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll, along came Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, as well as Tadhg Furlong and others. And in the next World Cup cycle Ireland will look to the likes of Caelan Doris to fill the mantle.
In truth, he’s already arrived. Now 24, he bestrides games with his explosiveness of power and speed, his footwork and handling skills, but also his numbers and work ethic. His carrying game may be his point of difference, but it’s not the only one, and it’s hard to think of anything he doesn’t do well as a number eight or six.
Sometimes it takes a view from the outside to rubber stamp our bias towards one of our own. During the second Test in New Zealand last July the former Scottish lock Jim Hamilton, capped 63 times, tweeted: “Caelan Doris is having one of the best games I have ever seen from an Irish player.”
During Leinster’s 49-19 win in Gloucester, Doris had assists for both of Leinster’s first tries, when peeling off a lineout and passing behind Jamie Osborne for Jordan Larmour’s opening try before a deft, Tadhg Furlong-like pirouette and short pass for Michael Ala’alatoa to score off a tap penalty.
In a typical all-court performance, Doris also muscled over for Leinster’s bonus-point try in first-half injury time and after the game Hamilton, working as a co-pundit with O’Driscoll, ventured that the only rival to the world-class Doris as the best number eight in the world was Ardie Savea.
Few ex-players are better qualified to discuss Doris’s credentials as a player than Jamie Heaslip, Ireland’s most-capped number eight of all time, whose five caps with the Lions supplement his 95 with Ireland in making him a Test centurion.
Bumping into him two years ago, he was of no doubt that at the age of 22 then, Doris was ahead of Heaslip at that age and destined to become an Irish great.
“I think if you look at all the number eights in the world right now and if you said that Caelan Doris was the best in the world, you wouldn’t have much argument from me,” Heaslip told The Irish Times this week.
Asked to explain why he holds Doris in such high regard, Heaslip said: “He is a very good all-round natural footballer on both sides of the ball. I think he’s a smart footballer and Caelan is the type of player who can make an impact if it’s a big, open, free-flowing game when you’re up by 20 points, or it’s a tight game.
“He can make a difference for you. He can find a gap for you. He can get you the momentum. He can be the spark that ignites the fire. He doesn’t need to have others going really well around him. I think that’s the sign of a player can ignite something.
“It’s really weird. I think it’s his all-roundedness. He can play six, he can play eight, he’s pretty comfortable in both, he’s going to get through a phenomenal amount of work for you, a phenomenal of amount of work,” Heaslip stresses.
“But then he can roll his sleeves up. If it’s lashing rain down in Thomond Park or the Sportsground, and it’s a horrible day to be playing rugby in someone else’s back field, he’ll roll up the sleeves. He’s not a fair-weather player but you give him a fair day, and he’s going to light it up as well.
“I think he’s absolute top quality. I would argue that he’s playing in a tougher competition as well. I think the northern hemisphere is a tougher competition right now than the southern hemisphere, and when he went toe-to-toe he has stood up and outshone most other number eights but he’s so versatile he can play at six as well.”
There seems to be a relative shortage of iconic figures in the game like some of those mentioned beforehand, and in his off-field as well as on-field presence, Sexton will leave a void.
It’s always striking how tall Sexton is and, oddly, Doris if anything seems bigger on the pitch than off it. But in front of the media at The Campus in Quinta do Lago, where three years ago this week Andy Farrell informed him he would be making his Irish debut in the Six Nations opener against Scotland, Doris has an understated presence about him now.
The three years have flown.
“It flies by. We had one-on-ones last week and it was the same thing three years ago, I was saying to Faz that I was shocked that the three years had flown by.
“Covid had a big part of that. Playing a bit of cards last night, it reminded me of playing cards with Dev Toner three years ago – he took me under his wing in the first camp.
“It’s always class this week over here, we missed it during Covid but last year and this year it’s class.”
Doris is a product of the Blackrock College production line, but he’s different too. Having grown up in Lacken, at heart Doris is still very much a son of Mayo as opposed to a Dub.
“Not at all, people probably hear the accent but I’m definitely a Mayo man, yeah. I love going home, I was back for a few days over Christmas and my parents always have a few of the neighbours in at Christmas Eve and it’s a throwback to people who I grew up with.
“It’s nice seeing the pride they have in enjoying seeing me play. It’s always good getting back.”
His earliest memories of watching Ireland play Wales in Cardiff are of Ronan O’Gara’s drop goal to win the 2009 Grand Slam, when he was 10 years old. “Back in Lacken, back in Mayo.”
By then the dream of playing for Ireland had already fostered, and it would be re-enforced when going to secondary school in Blackrock.
“I remember when I was in first year I was sitting in the schools, student area [of the Aviva] and thinking I’d love to be there some day.
“Alan Rogan, who was involved in refereeing at the time, sorted us out with tickets. I’d come up with Ballina before that, but I remember thinking I’d love to be on that pitch.”
He’s known for a maturity beyond his years and his innate strength of character must in part stem from being a boarder at the age of 13 for six years. Sure, Blackrock wasn’t exactly slumming it, but coming from a small Mayo village and being over 100 miles away from his family can’t have been the easiest. After leaving school, he again lived on his own in an apartment in Monkstown.
It’s also worth noting that Doris studied psychology, and while you don’t have the sense that he sizes people up, he does think things through, and is clearly emotionally intelligent as well as being smart and well educated. That smartness comes through on the pitch too.
Doris also played two seasons of Leinster schools junior and three years of senior cup at Blackrock, a workload that can sometimes deter as much as inspire professional careers, but in his case he just continued developing and progressing.
“He’s in the mould of Garry Ringrose, Dan Sheehan and Andrew Porter,” says his agent Niall Woods, comparing to other clients of Navy Blue Sport. “Head down, down to earth, hard-working, train at a hugely high rate, put in a huge amount of work, aren’t flashy, just do all the basics really, really well.”
Doris was the standout player of what was a relatively unexceptional Ireland Under-20 team and the World Rugby Under-20 Championship in 2018, and was the first from that team to be fast-tracked into the Irish set-up.
His performances in the autumn of 2020 had caught the attention of Warren Gatland and were it not for the concussion issues which sidelined Doris from the 2021 Six Nations he’d have likely gone on the Lions tour.
Doris has started every one of Ireland’s 16 Tests since the summer of 2021, and was number eight in all of three Tests against the All Blacks as well as the Springboks and Wallabies.
Despite being shifted to blindside and being spared the last quarter against Fiji, Doris’s numbers in the three Autumn Series Tests were ridiculous: 36 carries, 101 metres made, five broken tackles, 43 tackles made, two offloads and five turnovers.
As a key man, Ireland need Doris to deliver handsomely again over the next five games, but as things stand, he would probably be the starting Lions eight now.