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FEATURE Caelan Doris targets French tonic for Rugby World Cup wounds

Caelan Doris targets French tonic for Rugby World Cup wounds
5 months ago

It’s late July 2023 at Ireland’s high performance centre on the northside of Dublin. Ryan Baird and Jimmy O’Brien, up for their media penance, are quizzed about how Leinster will approach the new season. This is the first opportunity to speak with the lads after Leinster’s second successive Champions Cup final heartbreak against La Rochelle and it quickly becomes clear there has been little contact with their province.

Baird got some titbits from Scott Penny, his good friend, but that was the height of it. In those final days of summer, as World Cup warm-ups and selection loomed, there was only one cup this set of players cared about.

Nearby, Caelan Doris chatted amiably to TV reporters in front of the sponsored backdrop. Doris was a shoo-in for selection and a starting berth in the big games. He spoke about a mindfulness session he carried out, aided by his father, Chris, after that La Rochelle defeat and working closely with forwards coach Paul O’Connell. He had mashed the reset button.

Take it all the way up to the World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand and all was going to plan, for Doris and Ireland. Andy Farrell had put big minutes on his frontliners but the gap between the wins over South Africa and Scotland eased doubts. Ireland were on a winning streak stretching back to the second Test against the All Blacks in July 2022.

Ardie Savea’s New Zealand defeated Caelan Doris’ Ireland in a nerve-shredding Paris quarter-final (Photo by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images)

As part of the quarter-final build-up, a Kiwi podcast selected 10 Irish players in a combined XV with New Zealand. It seemed perfectly reasonable. In the space of seven years, the inferiority complex was lifting. In Ireland, we still found grounds to grumble – Ardie Savea was picked ahead of Doris at number eight as he ‘probably had a wee bit more to his game’. Doris, they insisted, was phenomenal but some here felt he was hard done by.

Retrospect tells us that call was on the money. Savea is an incredible operator and would have you awestruck at some of his performances, even when the chips do not fall the way of his side. Heading into that October 14th game, though, there was barely anything between them. In the quarters, New Zealand put it so ruthlessly to the Irish that they needed every ounce of experience and fight just to stay in touch. They were rarely allowed play on their terms.

“There were some things we feel we could have done better, regardless of what they were doing,” Doris reflects. “Then there are other things, through their pressure and opportunities and options, they took away from us.

There was a lot of confidence going into the week, which, in some ways, makes it harder to take.

“We were aware they had improved quite a bit since we beat them over there. We were aware it was going to be a different team, but we felt we’d made good steps and leaps forward since that series too. So, there was a lot of confidence going into the week, which, in some ways, makes it harder to take.”

There were some magnificent performances, in a losing cause, by men in green jerseys. Bundee Aki was carnage incarnate, Tadhg Beirne not far behind. Tadhg Furlong and Johnny Sexton held up their end of the bargain, and Jimmy O’Brien was an impact replacement.

Doris, too, had a fine game. He won a big first-half turnover and was the best forward source of front-foot ball. He was a handful. Most of that is forgotten now. He spilled a New Zealand goalline drop-out in those closing stages, after Rónan Kelleher was held up by Jordie Barrett. For Irish supporters, it was unnerving. The mistake came under no pressure from an opposition player but plenty pinned to the occasion. Just like Andrew Porter would replay those scrum penalties or Peter O’Mahony the crosskick he almost pouched for a try, that handling error is hard to get off a loop.

Doris started all five of Ireland’s World Cup matches, scoring a try against Tonga, but defeat by the All Blacks was tough to take (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

On October 29th, the night after his New Zealand side lost a gripping World Cup final to the Springboks, Savea was acknowledged as World Rugby Player of the Year for 2023. Not far removed, Doris was sitting in his socks, in a classroom at Kilkenny College, semi-circled by Irish rugby reporters.

Leinster had just wrapped an open training session and he was back on media duties. If there was any question of his motivation for the season ahead, that was soon dismissed. He was right up to speed with how Leinster had fared in the opening weeks of the new season. He knew all about how 21-year-old James Culhane had made an early name for himself with three starts and a try against Edinburgh. “I’m setting new goals and trying to improve,” said Doris, “because if I don’t do that, then he is going to take my position.”

It’s pretty… yeah, it still hurts, but you kind of have to find ways to put a positive spin on it.

Catching up with Doris ahead of the festive interprovincial derbies, he had reclaimed that starting jersey and was building with each match he logged. Asked to assess his first World Cup, the Mayo man observed: “The disappointment is still there, and the frustration of it. But I also look back with so much fondness and so many connections that grew.

“We were already a pretty close-knit crew. Spending the whole pre-season and our time in France together for the guts of two months, those relationships grow further. We had great craic off the pitch, even the bus journeys and trips out for coffees and lunch. But, obviously, we didn’t reach our end goal. It’s pretty… yeah, it still hurts, but you kind of have to find ways to put a positive spin on it.”

It did not take long to get back on the Leinster script, especially with Munster cock of the walk after last season’s United Rugby Championship heroics. We are far from the trophy presentations, but there have been statement wins over La Rochelle and Munster (twice) in the space of a month. Doris captained Leinster for the first time, in a surprising New Year’s Day home loss to Ulster, yet insists he is happy to bide his time for that honour with Ireland. There are a few ahead of him, he insists, in the pecking order with O’Mahony leading Farrell’s team into the Six Nations.

In the championship opener, his performances improving week on week, Doris is desperate for another memorable occasion on French soil. “Friday night, away to France… if you can’t get excited for that game, you’re in the wrong career.”

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