THERE WAS A long pause as Caelan Doris considers the question. The Ireland number eight had been asked if he has changed much as a person since his Ireland debut three years ago.
Doris thought long and hard about it. Rarely are there such breaks in the conversation when it comes to rugby interviews.
“Yes and no,” he eventually answered before pausing at length again.
“Have I changed? I don’t know, it’s a deep question that one.”
The chat moved in another direction and Doris became more talkative again but you’re left wondering what was really going through his head. We can’t claim to know Doris personally at all but he certainly comes across differently these days. More confident, more assured, more at ease.
It’s easy to forget that he’s still only 24. He plays like someone who has been at this level for much longer than three seasons. Doris, a former Ireland U20 captain, is now part of the senior team’s leadership group. He likes the extra duties.
“In some ways, I actually found it easier coming in [in 2020],” said 23-times capped Doris. “I felt like because I was a new player, you’re under a bit less pressure.
“Now, I’m a bit more experienced and it’s not just about getting my own stuff right. There’s a little bit more responsibility to help the newer guys and I’m enjoying that.”
Doris was sitting in Portugal at Ireland’s pre-Six Nations training base in the Algarve. That’s where he joined Ireland for his first-ever campaign with Andy Farrell’s side back in 2020. He recalls playing cards with Devin Toner, who took Doris under his wing.
Having impressed at that first camp, Doris got his debut in Farrell’s opening game against Scotland, starting in the number eight shirt.
“Myself and Rónan Kelleher who I’m living with now, he was on the bench,” says Doris.
“The team was announced when we were in the airport flying back and our phones were hopping.”
His debut only lasted a few minutes before he suffered a concussion. But he has been in Farrell’s starting XV virtually every time he has been fit since that day in 2020, whether at number six or eight. Indeed, Doris is third on the list of players who have racked up the most minutes in the Farrell era, behind only Hugo Keenan and James Ryan.
Ireland’s players all had one-on-one meetings with Farrell last week and Doris explained that they spoke about his progress at Test level.
“I was saying to Faz that I was shocked that the three years had flown by,” said Doris.
He and Farrell discussed Doris’ game and where he can get better. We can only imagine that there weren’t a huge amount of weaknesses to talk about. He already has a complete array of skills – carrying, passing, tackling, jackling, set-piece, and decision-making. Doris himself insists that he has loads of room for growth.
“Coming into camp with the likes of Prendo [Cian Prendergast] and Coombesy [Gavin Coombes], they have been playing very well in their provinces,” said Doris.
“Watching them every weekend, you can’t rest. You’ve got to keep improving and that’s the great thing about the provinces going well. Even at Leinster, there’s so much competition in the back row. That internal competition is good.”
Still, it’s hard to imagine an Ireland XV without Doris in it these days. He’s central to everything they do.
Doris continues to do the people of Lacken proud. He might have been living in Dublin for more than a decade now between boarding school in Blackrock and starring for Leinster but he’s very proud to represent Mayo, having started his rugby journey with Ballina RFC.
“People probably hear the accent, but I’m definitely a Mayo man,” he says.
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“I love going home, I was back for a few days over Christmas and my parents always have a few of the neighbours in on Christmas Eve and it’s a throwback to people who I grew up with.
“It’s nice seeing the pride they have in enjoying seeing me play. It’s always good getting back.”
Doris recalls being at home in Lacken as he watched Ronan O’Gara nail a Grand Slam-sealing drop-kick in Cardiff back in 2009.
He’s excited to play in the Principality Stadium himself for the first time today.
“Ideally there’ll be cheers for us, but either way, I remember Johnny [Sexton] saying before – I think it came from Brad Thorn – that he got inspired from bums on seats, regardless of who they were cheering for,” said Doris.
“So, I think that’s quite a good message going into this one. We’ve spoken quite a bit about having a fast start and hopefully not letting their crowd get in too much behind them. Possession is big for them and territory, so an early, accurate start is going to be important for us.”
Doris’ influence will be pivotal again too.
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