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Caelan Doris: 'Having an extra layer of foam around my head will do no harm'

The Leinster and Ireland No8 has outlined the fears he encountered as he recovered from a concussion injury.

Doris got a head injury on his Ireland debut.
Doris got a head injury on his Ireland debut.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Updated Oct 28th 2021, 8:30 AM

CONCUSSION: IT IS one of the dirtiest words in rugby. Already we’re seeing the consequences on the pained faces of those players who suffered a series of head injuries at the start of this century, the cumulative effect of hit after hit signaling distress as life moves from the pitch into middle age.

If there’s little doubt that lawsuits are on the horizon in the sport there’s also an inevitability that the current generation are going to tread a lot more carefully should they suffer a concussion of their own.

That’s where Caelan Doris comes in. The Ireland and Leinster back-rower is a young man, still just 23, yet already he’s had two bad bangs to the head, one against Treviso when he was wearing a Leinster shirt, another against Scotland when he first pulled on an Ireland one.

Midway through last season, he removed himself from contact training and matches, unsure exactly when he’d be back. A trip to Birmingham to see a brain specialist resulted in Doris getting the best of care, but frustratingly for him in the short-term, the best of care meant stepping away from action just as the Six Nations was about to start and the Champions Cup was getting interesting.

He knew he was doing the right thing. Aside from those two troubling hits against Treviso and Scotland, there were another couple of minor ones, one of which came in a practice game before this year’s Six Nations. “In one sense it was a tough decision to step back,” says Doris, “but then again, it wasn’t, because I had been a little bit worried about some symptoms.”

caelan-doris-down-injured Doris receives treatment for a knock. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Those were cognitive, some around concentration and worse again, some focussed on his speech and short-term memory. In his own words, a ‘battery of tests’ followed, his brain, his bloods, his balance, all checked out.

He must have been concerned. While sports people, especially rugby players, and in particular members of the pack, like to trick themselves into thinking they’re invincible, there’s nothing more sobering than struggling to remember a name you should.

“When you’re getting a few of these knocks, you are sort of hyper aware and hyper vigilant of any deviation from any normal cognitive function,” Doris said.

“So if you can’t remember the name of something or forget to do something – you’re attributing it to these knocks, which mightn’t actually be the case. So yes, there was a bit of worry although my initial cognitive testing was pretty good, a little bit down.

“Then I did another one a couple of weeks later and it was further up. So (my initial test result) was probably a little bit down (because of) the knock.

“Now it’s back, thankfully, back to my baseline, maybe not (he laughs at himself) the normal (person’s) baseline.”

caelan-doris-scores-a-try-despite-ioan-nicholas Doris scores a try against Scarlets. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Since he returned from four-month absence in June, he has taken to wearing a scrum cap, the new improved one that is classified as a medical device “and has a fair few studies behind it showing that it reduces the force to the head”.

“There are a fair few things you can do to prevent concussion,” says Doris. “Tackle technique is obviously huge but your neck strength to protect the whiplash effect is also crucial, as is taking time out if you are having a few (head knocks) and then building up that threshold again. Put it this way, having an extra layer of foam around my head will do no harm.”

There is a happy ending to this story. He’s good now, returning to the Ireland squad in June, adding to his tally of caps. He is up to nine now, and is seeking to get into double figures by the end of next month, when Japan, New Zealand and Argentina move on from their visit here.

“I’m pretty happy with where I am now,” he says. “I have always got those base lines to look back to, if there are worries again in the future. I am just grateful to be able to play again now.”

Still, in a parallel universe, he wouldn’t have been injured in that behind-closed-doors game, he would have played in the Six Nations, stayed ahead of Jack Conan in the pecking order, picked up a man of the match award in one of those games, become a British and Irish Lion.

Instead of touring South Africa, he was bolted up at in Carton House, seeing action in June against the USA and Japan, a different world in rugby terms.

warren-gatland-with-tadhg-furlong Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“The Lions talk (Warren Gatland emailed him to see if he was interested in touring) was nice but frustrating in a way,” he says. “The longer I was out with the head injury, the more I was thinking my Lions chances are probably gone here. The more time that passed the more certain I was around that.”

Then something changed. In April, Gatland’s name appeared in his email inbox. He was emailing to see if Doris had any issues about travelling to covid-hit South Africa, essentially telling him he was on his long-list of possible tourists. “I sort of had a pep in my step and was looking forward to getting back.”

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Then, on the Friday of the captain’s run, the day before the Rainbow Cup game against Munster, he strained a calf injury, putting him out for another couple of weeks. “That was frustrating. Still, it was nice to be mentioned in the mix.

ronan-kelleher-caelan-doris-and-james-ryan Doris launched Ireland's Canterbury kit. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Things were actually getting easier for me due to the fact I had made the right decision (in terms of stepping away to get a thorough medical check on his brain). And the fact I was getting good news as it went on; I knew it wouldn’t be too long before I’d be back playing. I was able to stay training with Leinster; I was able to do more conditioning and gym sessions and pack on a few extra pounds. I was kept pretty busy, practicing offloads, lines of running, alternating between No8 and No6.

“I’m still trying to get used to it (playing blindside flanker); at six you are a little bit out on the edge, although the coaches want me to get involved as much as possible. It is something that I need to try and get better at.

“Long term, I still want to be an eight who can play six rather than a six who can play eight. I still see eight as my primary position but it is obviously extremely competitive at the minute.”

It certainly is. Ireland have three top-class No8s, Doris, Jack Conan and Gavin Coombes; plus a plethora of other back-rowers, a dozen of whom could make a decent fist of international rugby.

“It means you have always got to be on your game,” says Doris. “Each training session you always want to show the coaches what you are capable of.”

That sounds ideal but in actuality can be exhausting, the constant need to perform, the knowledge that if you don’t, someone else will. With Ireland, that could be Coombes, Conan or Peter O’Mahony; with Leinster, it’s Conan, Rhys Ruddock, Dan Leavy, Max Deegan, Scott Penny.

“You have got to enjoy the competition, knowing you can’t relax, that there may be moments in training or whatever where you are not quite feeling up to it, the guys around you are pushing you, it is definitely a good thing, maybe not day to day, but in the bigger picture, it is.”

* Canterbury, the official kit partner to Irish Rugby, has revealed the new Ireland Rugby Home and Alternate jerseys that will be worn throughout the 2021/22 season. See Elverys.ie and Canterbury.com

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Garry Doyle

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