Caelan Doris profile: ‘He has almost the perfect temperament’
From a small village in Mayo to the Leinster and Ireland backrow via Blackrock college
Caelan Doris, n action against Wales, will again start in the Irish backrow against England this weekend. File photograph: Inpho
Back in April 2015, Ireland played Wales in the European Under-18 Championship in Toulouse. During an injury break, the Irish forwards went into a huddle for a chat when the Welsh Number 8 walked to within earshot in order to have listen in, undetected. Or so he thought.
Caelan Doris had just turned 17 that month, and was playing alongside and competing against players mostly a year older. On spotting the interloper in red, Doris didn’t become angry or agitated, or even say anything. Instead, he sent the Welsh player on his way with a squirt of a water bottle.
“It was an interesting way of dealing with it,” recalls the team’s then coach Noel McNamara. “It gives an insight into him. When you look at how he’s played in his first few internationals, even the way that his teammates speak about him, you can sense he’s already well respected. But it’s not just his physical ability, it’s his temperament.
“If you saw him as a 15-year-old in Donnybrook you’d have said he was an under-20s player. Of course, some players don’t transfer that into the top level. To me Caelan has always looked like a test level player. But he has almost the perfect temperament.”
Presumably this has something to do with the way Doris was reared. Both his parents, Rachel (nee Sweetnam) and Chris, are psychotherapists, who moved to Lacken, on the Atlantic coastline in north Mayo about 14 miles from Ballina, in the early 90s. Chris is also a very good artist, once spending 40 days and nights at the top of Croagh Patrick interviewing pilgrims as part of a social sculpture, and loves nothing better than painting on Lacken’s beautiful three mile stretch of beach.
The village of Lacken has two family pubs - Bessie’s and Maughan’s, the latter also own the only shop - and is a 10 minute drive from the family home.
Doris went to Creevagh National School, which had about 35 kids, and there was just one other boy in his class. Inevitably, Doris’ first team sport was at Naomh Pádraig Gaelic football club, before being introduced to mini rugby from the age of seven at Ballina RFC.
He’s very intelligent, quiet and reserved off the pitch. But when he comes onto the pitch he assumes a completely different persona
“He was hard to get into training. We had to go down and coax him to come in,” says the Ballina chairman Alan Rowe.
Much of the credit for this goes to Oisín Loughney, who like his first cousin Ronan, the retired Connacht prop, also hails from Lacken and drove Doris to and from training.
“But he loved it when he got in. He was a very nice, mannerly boy and he learned very quickly. He didn’t stand out in the first few years but by the age of 12 he began to blossom and was a big part of our under-13 League-winning side,” says Rowe.
“I would say we had a very big part in him playing rugby. He had the bug when he went to Blackrock. He went through from seven to 12 with Ballina and then we lost him for all the right reasons.”
They did lure him back for an Under-17 Connacht A League final against Sligo in Ballyhaunis. Needless to say, Ballina won. Presumably the boy Doris did okay? “He stole the show, completely,” says Rowe.
“While he has gone on to great things, he always remembers where he came from. In lockdown, he was training all the time in Lacken. Anything we’ve asked him to do in the club, on video conference or Zoom, at the drop of a hat he does it.
“To get one international in a lifetime is great, but to get four from a town with a population of 9,000 is incredible. With Caelan on the crest of a wave, our membership is growing. We have 250 kids playing rugby and they want to be him.”
As Doris himself once put it: “I’ve always said: ‘Mayo for football, Leinster for rugby. My uncle Connell played for Leinster Under-19s and my Dad played for Blackrock.”
Doris’ dad was a fullback on one of the Blackrock Junior Cup teams beaten in the final by Terenure for three years in a row in the late 70s, and also played football for their Under-16 side.
Hence Doris boarded at Blackrock in secondary school along with his older brother Rian, who switched there from King’s Hospital. Their maternal grandmother lived in Donnybrook and Doris can recall hearing the cheering on Leinster Schools Cup days.
It wasn’t long before he was playing there himself.
After two years on Rock’s Junior Cup team, he played for three seasons on their senior team, which was coached by Peter Smyth, subsequently the Leinster academy manager and now the IRFU’s head of elite player development.
“He first came on to my radar as a 13/14-year-old in Blackrock,” recalls Smyth. Doris was on the Junior Cup team which beat Belvedere 17-10 in the 2013 final before breaking into the senior team as a blindside at 15, and was captain in his final year.
In Doris’ first year, they beat Clongowes in the final, but in the following two years they were beaten in the quarter-finals, against Roscrea, and then in a replay against Belvedere, losing 35-29.
Smyth says Blackrock are as proud of the person as the rugby player: “he’s got such a great demeanour with people. He’s always in good form, always interested in other people and what’s going on with them.”
There’s never been much doubt about the rugby ability either.
“He was a tremendous ball carrier and we built game plans in how we went forward off him,” says Smyth. “But then he became very good at the breakdown, defensively, developed very good handling skills and became very good at restarts.”
The footwork, helped by his GAA roots, is seemingly innate.
“He always had the ability to change direction quickly, to attack weak shoulders, to break tackles,” says Smyth.
McNamara coached Doris for two years on the Leinster and Irish schools teams, and for his second season with the Irish Under-20s. Doris had already caught McNamara’s eye when coaching the Clongowes side in that 2015 Leinster final.
“We went into that final worrying about Jeremy Loughman, Conor Oliver, Nick Timoney, Joey Carbery, Hugo Keenan and others. We weren’t thinking that a 15-year-old TY student was going to be our biggest problem on that day, but he certainly was one of them.” Will Connors was the Clongowes number six.
“He’s very intelligent, quiet and reserved off the pitch. But when he comes onto the pitch he assumes a completely different persona.”
Whereas many players might have one or other, it’s both the quantity and quality of Doris’ work which stands out for McNamara.
Doris played as a lock and across the backrow on the Leinster schools team, at the end of his first season McNamara asked him for feedback. “Pretty much the only feedback he gave me was: ‘I want to play in the backrow’.”
The following season as captain, “and our best player by a country mile”, Doris played ‘8’. But against Ulster in Queen’s, Leinster lost one of their locks during the Captain’s Run.
“What are we going to do?” McNamara asked his captain.
“I’m going to play secondrow,” said Doris.
McNamara adds: “He was the best player on the pitch, absolutely everywhere, and scored two tries. We won in a tight finish. That sums him up for me.”
Doris played every game of the 2017 Under-20 Six Nations, and recovered from a shoulder injury to play in the 2017 Junior World Championship. He missed the 2018 Six Nations with a grade three hamstring tear sustained in an Irish Under-20s-Leinster Development trial match.
McNamara remembers his heart sinking, but Doris made it back just in time for the Under-20 World Cup, as captain.
“He’s very softly spoken so tends not to threaten referees too much and build a really good relationship with them. Also, in terms of his teammates looking up to him, Caelan would be like James Ryan in that respect.”
“There was a huge responsibility on Caelan but he didn’t shirk it. He played all 400 minutes of our five games. He would have been top of the ball-carrying charts, top of the tackle stats in the World Cup in general, in a team that didn’t lack for effort but which struggled. That just gives a measure of who he is as a person, but also the quality he brings as a rugby player.”
There was also a stint playing in the AIL with St Mary’s (his debut was the day after his ‘Debs’ away to Clontarf) and after one year in the Leinster sub academy and one in the full academy, he was promoted to a senior contract for the 2018-19 season. He made inroads that season, before 2019-20 was his breakthrough with first Leinster and then Ireland.
Although signed up to another two-year deal until June 2022, Doris’ agency, Navy Blue Sports, are in negotiations with Leinster about upgrading his contract.
The agency’s managing director, Niall Woods, has a gem, and knows it.
“He’s a very level-headed fellah. I assume it’s partly to do with going to boarding school from the age 13 years of age. He’s not mature or old, or anything like that, but he’s very switched on. He analyses things, thinks about it and comes back with an answer. He doesn’t over-react to anything. He’s a pleasure to deal with, gets on with things, isn’t too demanding.”
“I suppose it’s sort of similar to him on the pitch, he just gets on with things,” says Woods, the former Leinster, London Irish and Ireland winger, adding: “Some players might get burnt out by all the rugby he’s played in the last seven or eight years. He just keeps going on an upward trajectory. I definitely think ‘8’ is his best position, probably because he’s more natural there. He can play well at ‘6’, but he seems to play better when he’s at ‘8’.”
Somewhat in the Jamie Heaslip mould of a clever, multi-faceted ‘8’, which is a big compliment to him, but one day might be to Heaslip. All being well there’s no limit to what Doris can achieve. The sky is the limit.
“He’s going to become one of the true greats and we’re very proud of him,” says Rowe.
Smyth adds: “The one thing you would say about him is that he’s always risen to every challenge I’ve ever seen him take on. He’s always risen to every challenge that’s been put in front of him. And it’s not about the stand-out moments. It’s this continued excellence all the time, and he’s already done a huge body of work.”
Indeed. Taulupe Faletau and Wales last week. Billy Vunipola and England this week.
And so the Doris story goes on . . .