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Caelan Doris on how Leinster are meeting physical force with smarts

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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Twenty years on from the infamous Irish football bust-up in Saipan featuring Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy, it is safe to say that Leinster has certainly adopted the “fail to prepare, prepare to fail” mantra espoused at the time by the deposed Ireland captain. Just a few days after their Heineken Champions Cup semi-final win over Toulouse, Caelan Doris was shedding light on the level of preparations by the Irish province for next weekend’s final showdown versus La Rochelle.  

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Current weather projections for Marseille are that it will 26°C at kick-off time at Stade Velodrome, the sort of energy-sapping heat that Irish people simply aren’t used to. It’s a forecast not lost on Doris and co. “There are a few guys wearing woolly hats and jackets and double layers,” he said about training plans to combat the heat. “It was definitely pretty hot and pretty humid last Saturday (against Toulouse), so having that is a good stepping stone in terms of preparation for what is to come.”

Hats are topical for Doris, who has been enjoying the best form of his young career this season for Leinster and Ireland. There was a time when you feared for his health, so detrimental were concussions to his progress. However, lengthy rest turned things around and his use this year of a scrum cap has seemingly given the 24-year-old some welcome peace of mind. 

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Unlike your typical headgear, products that essentially look after your hair more than anything else, N-Pro use a particular fabric that is said to reduce force by dispersing the impact across the scrum cap. Doris isn’t an ambassador for the company but the cap fits and he hasn’t been seen without it over the course of a sensational season that has seen him make 20 club and country starts, a figure way up on last term.

“I’m enjoying it, I’ve had a clean run, touchwood. There are a lot of factors, things I’m doing and looking after, like neck strength and tackle tech, so the cap is one piece of the puzzle rather than potentially being a big factor. There are a lot of things I’m doing. A lot of my knocks were sort of glancing blows, so having that little layer of extra protection is going to do no harm anyway.

“I have had quite a few people (on to me) and I hope that people who are worried or people who are in a similar situation to where I was, I hope that I can be of help to them and point them in the right direction. I would have worn one at schools, so I had a bit of prior experience, but no, it [the adjustment to wearing a cap again] has been fine. It was a little bit tougher last weekend with the heat and I’ll have to get used to that again in Marseille, but it’s been fine.”

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Mention tackle technique and perfecting it, what does that involve on the Leinster training ground and how better prepared are they this year to handle the physicality of La Rochelle, the team that dumped them out in last year’s semi-finals? “Obviously, you can’t get too much bigger than the likes of (Emmanuel) Meafou and (Rory) Arnold, who we saw last weekend, and we dealt with them pretty well. 

Some of the work that Denis Leamy has done around our tackle technique – our two-man tackles and things like – has definitely contributed to that, but it’s going to be another huge challenge. Ronan O’Gara knows us pretty well so I’m sure he will be coming up with a good plan to stop us. Hopefully, we have improved since last year in terms of stopping the big fellas.

“On the back of last year, there was a lot of talk about it, towards the end of last season and going into pre-season. It has definitely been a big work-on – that, coupled with the fact that high tackles are getting penalised a lot more and technique is big now in terms of getting your height lower. It’s killing two birds with one stone in a way. It’s more effective in stopping the big guys but also you are less likely to be ill-disciplined with better tackle technique and that has definitely been a big area for us.

“There is very little full-on, live stuff (done at training) so a lot of it is with bags. It’s just about simulating the position. Some of it is just against a pad, leaning up against the post just trying to get the drop to a good height and being in a good position. Some guys might get a few live reps a week but there is definitely not much of that, it’s mostly around technique at a slower pace and then building up a bit to maybe 80 or 90 per cent. There is very little full-on.”

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Passing was the other area of Leinster’s game that has been getting great kudos in their latest Leinster run, the handling skills of the forwards often standing out more than what the backs can conjure up. What gives? “When Stu (Lancaster) first came, there was quite a big emphasis on improving the skills of forwards and the ability to give those tip-on passes or those ones out the back. 

“So there has been quite a focus on it from the start and we would have done skills mixed in with our gym sessions for a while. Then it is intertwined on the pitch with the more unstructured way, practising the fixed skill of passing and putting it into practice in a live scenario. Definitely, I can see the progression in myself and everyone around me over the last number of years.”

It was in the wake of the semi-final win over Toulouse when Johnny Sexton spoke about the hunger of the younger guys like Doris driving on Leinster to what they hope will be a fifth European success for the club. Next weekend’s decider is indeed new territory for the back row. He was sat at home injured for last year’s semi-final, he effectively travelled as a fan in 2019 while he was away with the Leinster As in London when the Champions Cup trophy was last lifted by the Irish province in 2018.  

“I remember watching it with a few of the other injured players, just a real frustration,” he said of last year’s semi-final memories before jumping back to the club’s recent back-to-back finals. “I remember travelling over to Newcastle – it was Newcastle, wasn’t it? I’d a few beers in me that day. I wasn’t the 24th man, I just remember I went over on the day and it was a sea of blue as we arrived at the stadium and how strong the travelling support was.

“There was an unbelievable atmosphere. It obviously wasn’t a successful day in the end. 2018, Leinster A had a final against Ealing on the same day we played Racing, so I wasn’t there for that one. We watched it over in Ealing and then we flew back and met up with all the squad in Dublin.”

Adding to the void of final days is how Doris wasn’t a Leinster fan growing up in the west of Ireland when the club won three titles in four years with Michael Cheika and then Joe Schmidt at the helm. “I grew up in Mayo. Rugby was always my No1 sport but I didn’t watch a whole lot of it bar the Ireland games really. I would have watched more Gaelic and soccer and then the Six Nations and the Lions. I’m sure I did watch those finals but I don’t remember where and I don’t remember specifics.”

Having since gone on to become a Leinster mainstay, courtesy of his talent getting nurtured as a border at Blackrock College, Doris admits there a little bit of Connacht is now firmly blue when it comes to rugby. “I’ve won a few over all right yeah. One of my neighbours actually plays for Ireland U18s, Sarah McCormick, and Connacht as well, unfortunately. We have kind of split our local parish, Lacken, between Connacht and Leinster, but I think I have won a few.”

What would it mean to Doris to become of the new breed of European title winners at Leinster if the La Rochelle fixture goes to plan? “It would be unbelievable. We talk a lot about driving the legacy together and that for me means a combination of the past, the present and the future of the club and recognising how the previous successes the club was built on and how it went through a tough patch, those successes inspired a lot of this group to be where they are today.

“We have the opportunity to inspire the next generation through our successes so in a way I feel like the legacy is in our hands and we have an opportunity to inspire the next generation. There is that level of it but then there is also just the pure enjoyment and the thrill and delight at winning a final. It is definitely something I want to do with this group. It’s a special group, pretty tight-knit with a lot of close friends within it. It would be amazing to do.

“There was a lot of reflection after that week [last year’s loss to La Rochelle]. Tackle tech, the ability to stop these big power teams with bigger guys than us, preparing, not letting your previous game be your best game. We have seen that a bit where the semi has been the best. 

“You look at England in the (2019) World Cup, or potentially us last season in the quarter-finals against Exeter, so it’s preparing for each game as your biggest game and each game is your final. We are fortunate that this is our final now and there are obviously massive motivations to make sure it’s our best performance and we haven’t peaked too early.”

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