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FEATURE Caelan Doris strikes out as clear Lions captaincy frontrunner

Caelan Doris strikes out as clear Lions captaincy frontrunner
2 months ago

For 57 minutes, at Croke Park, Leinster were in such cruise control, it was easy to let one’s mind cast lines into the future. An eddy of supporters arriving late into GAA headquarters caused a 10-minute delay to the semi-final action. With no beer permitted out in the seats, bars around Drumcondra were heaving up until kick-off time. The shame for Northampton Saints is that it took most of their players another 30 minutes to show up after the match actually started.

“Welcome to the epicentre of Irish nationalism!” declared a reporter, up in the Cusack Stand, to his English colleague. The semi clash between Leinster and Northampton was being hosted in the 82,300-seat Gaelic games pantheon, and it was filled to the brim, mostly with blue-clad fans. Austin Healey played up to the home fans with grimaces, shrugs and waves while Lawrence Dallaglio came back with coffees for the gantry crew, only to lose his way, as kick-off approached. Rugby was on less familiar ground, but everyone was finding their feet, and a little giddy. Even the public address announcer started the ‘10, 9, 8… ‘ countdown with Leinster still in their huddle.

That first half an hour was a relentless wave as Leinster surged, parried and struck. Saints barely landed a glove as they were buried in their biggest moment in a decade. James Lowe was not always perfect but it felt as if there were two of him on that vast green expanse – he was popping up everywhere, most importantly on the end of two try assists from the brilliant Jamison Gibson-Park.

Leinster led 12-0 and Saints were letting them off the hook, even when they erred. On 17 minutes, Lawes blocked down a clearing Gibson-Park kick and it ricocheted straight into the arms of Andrew Porter. Everything was going their way. Jamie Osborne and Josh van der Flier were making big defensive plays, while Caelan Doris was a sight to behold.

Caelan Doris
Doris is looking increasingly assured in his leadership for province and country (Photo Harry Murphy/ Getty Images)

Doris, Leinster captain in the absence of injured duo James Ryan and Garry Ringrose, had already registered some huge match moments in those opening 20 minutes. He had carried hard to the line after Leinster claimed a lineout and somehow, under a tangle of torsos and limbs, popped an offload to Gibson-Park that he deflected over for Lowe’s second try. When George Hendy tried to generate some offence, Doris belted in and forced a knock-on. He teamed up with Joe McCarthy for some stone-walling hits and got over the gainline on four of his first half carries. His only flaw of that first half – a breakdown infringement – afforded Saints their chance to finally get on the scoreboard. The team that had run in 59 points on the Bulls, in the quarters, were so brow-beaten they opted for three, just to get something to build on.

The second half started with Leinster seeking to deliver the knock-out blow. Ryan Baird had been bottled up for the first 42 minutes but he made a slicing line-break and revved into Alex Mitchell to deliver a perfect scoring platform. Henshaw ducked, dived and kept the attack alive before Dan Sheehan combined strength with awareness and nonchalance to offload to Frawley who, in turn, found Lowe for his hat-trick score. Ross Byrne missed his second and third conversions, after those Lowe tries, so Leinster were not out of sight. At the time, though, it sure felt that way.

There were signs of life for Northampton, at least, and Leinster were hasty in bringing off Sheehan and van der Flier with 30 minutes to play. Still, at 20-3 and with Gibson-Park pressing his foot to the floor, Leinster were in a great spot.

A few rows down, in the Croke Park press box, a reporter on a player ratings brief asked aloud if ANY Saints players had played well. Phil Dowson’s side looked flat and bereft of ideas. Fin Smith was being forced into aerial punts when Northampton attacks traversed and teased before being shunted back. When they did breach the whitewash of Leinster’s 22, it was Doris and McCarthy combining again to force another turnover. Mitchell had a decent snipe, minutes after, back in the red zone but Doris, van der Flier and Robbie Henshaw snuffed out that sliver of light and McCarthy was in for a poach, and turnover.

There were signs of life for Northampton, at least, and Leinster were hasty in bringing off Sheehan and van der Flier with 30 minutes to play. Still, at 20-3 and with Gibson-Park pressing his foot to the floor, Leinster were in a great spot.

Andy Farrell
Andy Farrell could easily entrust Doris to lead the Lions on their tour of Australia (Photo Ramsey Cardy/Getty Images)

TV cameras flashed to Andy Farrell, at one stage in the second half, eliciting more cheers than when Steve Borthwick and Felix Jones made a big-screen cameo. Later this year, the Ireland head coach will step away from his day job and start focusing on the British & Irish Lions. If you were to pick a Lions team, right now, Sheehan, McCarthy, Doris, Gibson-Park and Lowe would all be there. Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong would have strong cases to start, as would van der Flier, and Ryan Baird is on the right track. Hugo Keenan, before his hip issues, was leading contender to be Lions fullback.

Doris seems to have taken to captaincy with such ease. He had not captained at senior level until January 1st of this year, against Ulster. He led Ireland for the first time, in the Six Nations win over Italy, and ended up in that role for 178 minutes during the championship [Peter O’Mahony was replaced in the second half of all four of his starts]. With Ryan and Ringrose injured – a leadership and experience blow that would scuttle most teams – Doris has filled the breach and raised his performance levels. O’Mahony making the Lions tour to Australia, next summer, is highly, highly unlikely and neither Wales nor Scotland have strong candidates pushing for the gig, although Finn Russell will be eyeing the 10 jersey. English options would be Jamie George and two men not in Borthwick’s current set-up – Owen Farrell and Courtney Lawes, who happened to be the best Saint on show at Croke Park.

O’Mahony making the Lions tour to Australia, next summer, is highly, highly unlikely and neither Wales nor Scotland have strong candidates pushing for the gig, although Finn Russell will be eyeing the 10 jersey.

Such musings were parked, though, when Hendy created and finished a try that gave Saints hope. Ross Byrne missing a penalty from 40 metres out, straight in front of the posts, sent a collective shudder around the Leinster supporters and, all of a sudden, the attacking spigot had been shut off. The hosts were guilty of some sloppy handling errors and poor game management. Everything seemed to tighten. Having gone to their bench early, Leinster were now reluctant to freshen up their backline – Jimmy O’Brien got eight minutes, Luke McGrath was not used and Harry Byrne only entered the fray after Ciarán Frawley had tackled and harried himself into a puddle.

Jason Jenkins proved invaluable with two lineout steals and Gibson-Park dashed back to prevent a kick-and-chase Saints try. Leinster had thrown out all attacking notions now and were digging in. Those seven points missed by Byrne off the kicking tee were looking costly, especially when Tom Seabrook crossed over in the left-hand corner and Smith nailed his second touchline conversion.

Caelan Doris
Doris has assumed captaincy duties from the injured Garry Ringrose and looked composure personified (Photo Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

From 20-3 to 20-17, Saints had proved it was better late than never. They just needed one more bit of brilliance, luck or for Leinster to lose their discipline. With 70 seconds to go, Frawley completely hobbled and the ground pulsing with desperate cries, Temo Mayanavanua charged towards the Leinster 22. Henshaw made the initial tackle, getting knocked back in the process. Jack Conan dug in for the ball but it was Doris, painting that perfect jackaling picture, that drew the whistle from Mathieu Raynal.

Conan came out pumping his fist, then Doris rose and swatted him on the back of the head. The captain had made another huge play and was intent on pumping up those around him. As Frawley was helped off the pitch, Doris issued the final set of instructions in the Leinster huddle. They just about carried it out as Saints players flooded into a final breakdown before Harry Byrne was able to get the ball thwacked into the Cusack Stand.

Ringrose is close to returning so may get the honour of leading Leinster out at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, if he can prise out Osborne. Next summer, in Lions red, Doris is the clear frontrunner.

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Comments

5 Comments
J
JD Kiwi 76 days ago

It could be Doris' day!

P
Patrick 76 days ago

I’d be fascinated to see what other candidates you all might have for the Lions captaincy role. Let me know, below 👍

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