Sunday 20 October 2019

From rural Mayo to the RDS - Caelan Doris fulfilling his early promise in Leinster blue

It was noticeable from a young age that Caelan Doris had what it takes to build a rugby career

Caelan Doris. Photo: Sportsfile
Caelan Doris. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

On a fresh Saturday morning over Christmas 2015 we were given a heads up on an interesting schools game going on down the road. Blackrock College were taking on CBC Cork, and for various reasons it was being played on the all-weather pitch at Castle Avenue. A handy opportunity to catch some of the next wave.

As the teams were warming up, we asked a well-informed man which of the players might be cresting that wave. "Yer man," he said, pointing to the Blackrock number eight. "Straight into the (Leinster) Academy. He's a beast."

The young man in question was Caelan Doris. Clearly he was all there physically, but then you get a lot of that across the board in the schools game now, where size is almost uniformly large. Doris more than filled that bill.

He had good ball skills. He was powerful and athletic. He was carrying a fair bit in midfield off shortened lineouts so it was impossible to assess if he was a decent lineout forward, but that would be for another day.

Well, those days are becoming more numerous. Doris is one of that army of young folk in this country who come from rural outposts but sound like they were spawned and nurtured a few hundred yards from the Wesley end in Donnybrook. Coincidentally, it's where his granny lives. So he remembers being in her place as a kid on Leinster days when the sounds of action would come floating over the back wall. For this wee Mayo man, it piqued his interest.

Doris is from Lacken in north Mayo. He describes it as follows: "It's in the middle of nowhere. There's about 500 people living there. It's about 10 minutes from Killala which is the nearest kind of . . . I say town, it's a village really. And then another 20 minutes from Lacken is Ballina which is a proper town. There's about 10,000 people there. So, I grew up in Lacken; went to school there. There was only two people in my class in a school of 35 altogether. My parents moved down from Dublin two or three years before my brother was born. He's two years older than me so they've been there for about 25 years now."

You get the picture. His folks, both Dubs, wanted to raise their kids in the country and undertook a bit of a tour of the west coast. When they came to Lacken they put a pin in the map.

"It was brilliant, yeah," he says of growing up there. "I really enjoyed it." And he takes every opportunity to get back there.

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It seems a small step if you grew up in such a location, the son of parents who are in the psychotherapy business, to a place where you'd be in touch with your surroundings. His dad Chris was artist in residence for Mayo County Council when, in 1999, he spent 40 days and 40 nights living and working on top of Croagh Patrick as part of a social sculpture. In that time he interviewed thousands of pilgrims, from Ireland and abroad, who climbed the Reek, about their personal and spiritual journeys. His son is a bit sketchy on the detail.

"Yeah - he'll kill me for not knowing this: it was a kind of conceptual art thing . . . something. He's done a few different things like that. I can't think of the right word for it. My mother carried me up so I was obviously pretty small. I actually don't know too much about it other than that he spent 40 days and 40 nights up there. Don't know what he really did up there, how he got his food or anything."

Whatever, at the appropriate time the old man introduced his young son to the value of mindfulness, which in top-level rugby is becoming increasingly prevalent. For Caelan Doris, the low-level stuff started in Ballina RFC, and continued when he went to board as a first year in Blackrock. If it seems quite a jump then his dad had gone there and his older brother was switching over as well. From there he was on the journey.

A stat you'll come across regularly from those who have excelled at the schools game is to have five years straight of cup rugby - two years of junior followed seamlessly by three years senior. It's a hard slog, but Doris was made for it. By the time he had played senior rugby as a fourth year - he was barely overage for the juniors - the idea of a career in the game was presenting itself.

So the representative stream carried him along through Leinster and Irish schools and then a couple of goes at under 20 World Cups, the second as captain. That was last summer when Ireland finished 11th of 12 teams. He remembers it positively although others recall it was an exercise in unrelenting intensity, under coach Noel McNamara, where it was hard to find the off button. It sounds like a good environment for putting his mindfulness routine into action.

"I've gone through phases of being really good at doing it every day and then dropped off for a while," he says. "I did it (last season) while I was injured, that was when I first started using it, and then during the World Cup as well and then over the summer during the break I didn't use it as much so I'm trying to get back into the habit of doing it daily. But in general you're definitely more aware of when you feel a bit nervous, aware of the emotion rather than just feeling it. You can get to the root of it, if you know what I mean? Just by breathing and being aware of your body, I suppose, by doing mindfulness."

By that stage Doris had already made his competitive debut for Leinster in the Guinness Pro14. Coincidentally, it was next weekend's opponents. He remembers it as "one of the poorest performances of the season." You can delete the "one of" bit. Still, the bulk of the damage was already done when he came on after an hour on a day when the marquee names were away.

"A big thing we've talked about this season is that when the internationals are away or when they're just back that standard of performance has to be right up there rather than letting it slip like we did last year for a couple of games. That game in the Sportsground, and the Treviso game, spring to mind. Keeping that standard of performance up; keeping up standards at training throughout the periods when they're gone, throughout the periods when they come back in."

You could file Saturday in the RDS under that heading. When Leinster went to the Sportsground earlier this season they brought bucket loads of intent with them. And top names. And it had the desired effect. There will be fewer of them on board on Saturday but the circumstances should have everyone at the right level.

"I'm looking forward to it - the team hasn't been selected yet but hopefully I'll be involved," Doris says. "Every time you play in the RDS it's obviously class, in front of a pretty full crowd at Christmas time as well will be extra special. And playing against Connacht obviously there's guys who played underage in Leinster so it's always a very big game for them especially. Off the back of being champions last season every team are targeting playing Leinster so it's going to be a big game for them because of that but also because of the fact that quite a few ex-Leinster underage players are playing there. It's a big game for them. And for us."

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