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Dublin: 12 °C Sunday 8 December, 2019

'I'm coming back a better player': Doris relishing return to big stage after long lay-off

The Leinster back row has put a serious injury behind him to captain Ireland at this summer’s U20 World Championship.

IT WAS a performance which will undoubtedly go down as Leinster’s worst of an otherwise exceptional season, but Connacht’s clinical evisceration of the would-be European champions was a landmark afternoon in the nascent career of Caelan Doris.

Caelan Doris Doris at yesterday's U20 squad announcement. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

A second-string Leinster side were hit for seven by the western province on the final day of the regular Pro14 season, suffering their heaviest defeat in two years, yet the result aside that day will always stick with the 20-year-old, who came on for a 15-minute second-half cameo.

A senior debut is a momentous occasion for any young player but in the context of a promising season sabotaged by a grade two hamstring tear, Doris could take extra satisfaction from his appearance late in the piece having worked tirelessly to get back to full fitness.

“It was class,” he smiles.

Having missed the entire U20 Six Nations championship with the injury he sustained in a warm-up game before Christmas, Doris had to reset his goals for a season which looked destined to scale new heights, as an extended absence meant he fell out of sight and mind for a couple of months.

But in the background, the number eight worked closely with the Leinster physios during his rehab and understood the need to be positive, focusing on incremental improvements in speed, skills and other areas of his explosive game he may not have been able to refine had he been involved with Noel McNamara’s Ireland or Leinster’s British and Irish Cup campaign.

So by the time he was back on the pitch, Doris was a superior player — stronger, fitter and more polished than ever before — and the momentum lost to injury was instantly recovered with a series of big performances, culminating in that senior bow at the Sportsground.

“It was a long period out with the hamstring injury,” he explains. “I got a few games, came back with St Mary’s — got 40 minutes with them. Then with Leinster ‘A’ and then I got my first cap, so it was a nice linear progression there.

“Obviously when you are out, it’s frustrating at the time, seeing everyone else doing well, but there were a lot of things I was able to work on. I feel like I’m coming back a better player.”

Injuries to Josh van der Flier, Sean O’Brien and the late withdrawal of Jordi Murphy from the matchday squad opened the door for Doris on that gloriously sunny day in Galway.

“Leo actually said to me before the game that he made his debut in the Sportsground when he was 20, 20 years ago. The year I was born so that was kind of cool. He came on as a back row that day as well so hopefully I won’t make the switch to second row!

Connacht v Leinster - Guinness PRO14 Round 21 Doris came off the bench to make his Leinster debut in Galway recently. Source: Ramsey Cardy

“It was such a nice day weather wise. I’m from Mayo so I would have played with the Ballina minis and actually played on that pitch with the Ballina minis. It was cool to be back in front of a full crowd. Obviously the atmosphere, because of John Muldoon’s last game was extra special. It was just a pity about the result. Other than that, it was pretty good.”

Suddenly, the disappointment of missing nearly four months of the season was not as acute and to highlight the high regard Doris is held in, he was recently awarded a Leinster senior contract for the 2018/19 season having spent just one year in the province’s academy.

For anyone who has followed the Mayo native’s progress over recent years, his emergence as a prodigious back row talent will come as no surprise, particularly on the back of his imposing performances for Blackrock at schools level and Ireland during last year’s U20 World Championship in Georgia.

Still underage, Doris was yesterday named as captain of McNamara’s squad for this summer’s tournament, which gets underway next week, and he is relishing a return to the big stage again, having initially targeted it as his comeback date.

“We were kind of looking at 16 to 20 weeks [recovery time], which would have brought us to mid May,” he explained.

“But the rehab was going well. I felt good good from about eight weeks in so I got back after 15 weeks so I was a bit ahead of schedule.”

His return is a major fillip for Ireland and Doris’ physical presence, ability at the breakdown and experience will be important if McNamara’s side are to get through a tough pool containing hosts France, South Africa and Georgia.

“He was arguably the best number eight in the Six Nations championship last year,” McNamara says of his captain. “He’s obviously a guy who has played senior rugby for Leinster and is a guy who is very highly regarded. There is no doubt that he is a big boost for us coming back into the squad.

“You can go back quite a while. I was unfortunately on the receiving end in a Senior Cup final in 2014, where Caelan was a 15-year-old and even back then you could see he had a presence; even in the contact in particular, the tackle, he finds another foot on the floor.

Caelan Doris on the attack Doris was one of the standout performers during last year's World Championship. Source: Lasha Kuprashvili/INPHO

“In the ball carrying he gets you on the front foot. He’s got a lot of qualities as a player; he’s got a lot of qualities as a person. We are very happy to have him back in the group.”

The Ireland squad convened for a group session in Dublin yesterday and will continue preparations with a training match against Japan in Wanderers RFC later today.

After the Six Nations campaign finished with two wins and three defeats to Ireland’s name, McNamara and his squad will be focusing on putting in an 80-minute performance against France in Perpignan next Wednesday [KO 8pm, eir Sport], knowing their campaign hangs on that result.

Doris admits it’s the biggest game of his career so far.

“France at home is going to be huge,” he says. “That kind of sets up the tournament for us. That’s the one we are looking at now at the minute.

“Playing France, one of the first games of the World Cup in France, in front of a big crowd. It’s going to be unbelievable. I’m really looking forward to it.”

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Ryan Bailey

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