'It's crazy that just five years ago, he won an U17s medal in Ballyhaunis!'

Caelan Doris came through Ballina RFC and Blackrock College to establish himself as a major prospect for Irish rugby.

BACK AT THE start, Caelan Doris wasn’t 100% sure if rugby was for him.

He had been in with the minis at Ballina RFC at the age of seven or eight but, unsurprisingly, had also played football as he grew up in North Mayo.

Those involved in the rugby club were already sure it was worth persisting, though, and there were occasions when Ballina folk drove out through the little village of Killala and on towards Lacken to collect young Caelan for training.

The grá for rugby eventually clicked and Doris was soon on the rise. His rugby journey brought him to Blackrock College in Dublin as a boarder, into the Leinster set-up, and on towards his first senior Ireland caps, but the back row has kept in touch with his roots.

leinsters-caelan-doris 22-year-old Doris starts for Leinster against Saracens in the Champions Cup today. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Caelan has never forgotten where he came from,” says Alan Rowe, the chairman of Ballina RFC, who are mourning the deeply sad loss of young player John Brennan.

“Caelan has gone on to the big time but he does anything we ever ask, whether it’s a video for the minis or anything like that. He’s a gentleman, first of all, and he’s always accessible.

“When he got his first cap for Ireland, his father Chris was elated and they always thank us for our small steps in helping him along the way. His success means everything to the club.”

Doris was a talent from the beginning and even in the minis teams with Ballina it was clear he had something different.

“He was only a small fella at the time but he had that look that some players have, there was a sense he would be good,” says Rowe.

Doris’ parents, who are both psychotherapists, hail from Dublin but moved to Mayo almost 30 years ago, with Caelan and older brother Rian born in the west of Ireland.

With his father and uncles having gone to Blackrock College before him, a move east was always likely for Caelan’s secondary school education and so it was that he left Ballina at the age of 13, when Rian also moved to Blackrock from The King’s Hospital.

“Blackrock brought him to the big time,” says Rowe, and there’s no doubting that the move to Dublin was vital for Doris, who has followed in the footsteps of Michal Moylett, Gavin Duffy, and Dave Heffernan as Ballina players to win senior Ireland caps.

caelan-doris Doris in action for Blackrock in 2014. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

When he was in fourth year and still only 15-years-old, Doris was already a starter for Blackrock’s senior team. He was part of their 2014 Leinster Schools Senior Cup success, playing in a side that included Joey Carbery, Hugo Keenan, Jeremy Loughman, and David O’Connor. Alongside Doris in the back row were Conor Oliver and Nick Timoney, but the youngster more than held his own in the Peter Smyth-coached team.

Seán Kearns – who played in Australia last year and has just signed for Italian Super 10 club Colorno - was the out-half on that 2014 Blackrock side and remembers being impressed with how comfortably Doris stepped up. 

“You could see straight away he was very talented, but he always worked very hard to build on that talent, he never just sat back,” says Kearns.

“He was a fearless defender. When I think back, I have clear memories of him always having a bloody nose, mouth, or both usually!

“He was also very smart in attack. He knew how to use his feet and he’d try to find a soft shoulder before carrying, whereas most guys just catch and put their heads down. Maybe that was from having to avoid lads that were bigger than him.

“Coming in as a fourth year, you’d think he would just try to do his job and then be more of a key player in his last two years of SCT, but that wasn’t the case for Caelan – in a pack that was full of talent, he definitely stood out.”

Doris was a standout player again in 2015 and 2016, when he captained Blackrock, but there was no second Senior Cup success in his time with the school. 

His commitments in Dublin meant Doris was busy on the rugby front but he kept in touch with his Ballina friends throughout. Former team-mate Luke Sweeney is now the Mayo club’s senior team captain.

WhatsApp Image 2020-09-16 at 12.50.02 Doris collecting his U17s medal from Ballina RFC's Gerry O’Donnell and Luke Sweeney, who is now the club's senior team captain.

Doris would be home during the school holidays, while he even managed to make a return and play a victorious U17s final for the club during the 2015/16 season.

“It’s crazy to think that just five years ago, he won an U17s Connacht medal in Ballyhaunis!” says Rowe.

“It shows what you can do when you put your mind to it. With the likes of Sean O’Brien coming from Tullow, these guys have the ability to buck the trend and go through the system, it’s wonderful to see.”

Having shone with Blackrock and advanced into the Leinster age-grade system, Doris was very much on the professional radar at this stage and he played for the Ireland U20s in his first year out of school, a full season earlier than most players at that level.

Peter Malone, the Munster academy manager, was an assistant coach with the U20s in 2017 and then succeeded Nigel Carolan as head coach for that summer’s World Championship. He recalls Doris being flagged as a talent from very early on.

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Doris started all five of Ireland’s fixtures in the 2017 Six Nations, in which they won their opening three games before the promising number eight was held up over the tryline with the last act of their final match against England when a try would have secured victory.

The Mayo man was then sidelined a shoulder injury and just made it back for that summer’s Junior World Championship. Despite the long absence and a ninth-placed finish for Ireland, Doris impressed again.

“Having come back from injury, Caelan stood up for us massively,” says Malone. “He was a quiet kind of performer, he wouldn’t say a lot but carried hard, hit hard, and worked hard. He was a quiet leader and he delivered for us.”

caelan-doris Doris makes a carry against England U20s in 2017. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Malone was impressed with the rounded nature of Doris’ game at number eight, as well as the subtle skills he possessed to go along with his athleticism.

“He’s a physical carrier but it was more his feet as well, he can beat defenders with footwork and he has that athletic ability too, it was the combination of both. Some guys are just big men but Caelan can accelerate, beat defenders and still be physical in the contact stages.

“As well as that, he wasn’t just a carrier. He was getting turnovers, putting in his tackles, so he nearly had all the strings to his bow and it was just about developing those.”

One aspect of Doris’ game that was still a work-in-progress at that stage was his lineout jumping. In Blackrock, he hadn’t been used in that area but Malone has seen huge growth there ever since.

“He’s nearly 6ft 5ins but he wouldn’t have really been an excellent lineout jumper at that stage, but now you’re seeing him win lineout ball, stealing it too,” says Malone.

“Now when he’s in the frame for selection, you can call him a jumping back row rather than just a good carrying back row, so that makes it easier to pick him.”

With Carolan and Malone challenging their Ireland U20s crop to be leaders, Doris was one of those to really grow out in that sense too.

As such, Malone wasn’t surprised when new U20s boss Noel McNamara handed Doris the captaincy for the 2018 World Championship, which the number eight returned for after a long-term hamstring injury had ruined almost his entire 2017/18 campaign.

leinsters-caelan-doris Doris made his first start for Leinster in August 2018. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Any time Doris was on the pitch, he was making a major impact.

“I played with Caelan again for St Mary’s club when he came out of school,” recalls Kearns. “You could see at that stage he had progressed even more as a player but in particular he had become a real leader.”

Doris’ competitive senior debut for Leinster came off the bench against Connacht in April 2018 and then he started the opening game of the 2018/19 campaign away to Cardiff Blues, with a first Champions Cup appearance following later that season.

2019/20 has seen Doris become a first-choice in Leinster’s back row and his form took him all the way into Andy Farrell’s Ireland starting XV for the Six Nations earlier this year, when a head injury cruelly ended his debut against Scotland after just four minutes.

Lockdown brought Doris – a student of psychology in UCD in recent years – back home to Lacken, where he got his parents involved in his skills sessions and did his running on the nearby beaches.

It’s been obvious since rugby’s restart that Doris is ready to drive on to even greater heights and there’s no doubting his quality.

“He has played international rugby already, he’s starting for Leinster in big games, so he’s of that calibre,” says Malone. “I have no doubt he’ll give it everything to be the best he can be.

caelan-doris-during-the-national-anthem Doris has two senior caps for Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“He will define how far he goes but the potential is there. He has the physical profile, the work ethic, durability, carrying, lineout, breakdown – that’s ticking a lot of boxes. It’s up to Caelan and hopefully he stays lucky with injuries.”

Kearns speaks of 22-year-old Doris as “a lovely, genuine guy” and believes “this is still the beginning for him and there’s even more to come.”

And back in Ballina, around Killala, and on the beaches of Lacken, there is happiness to see one of their own rising through the game.

“Ultimately, it was in Blackrock and with Leinster that he pushed him on into the big time but it all started in Ballina,” says Rowe.

“We’re really, really proud of Caelan.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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