Caelan Doris was the first uncapped player to make his Test debut under Andy Farrell’s watch.
The Ireland head coach, who had succeeded Joe Schmidt following the 2019 World Cup, sprang a selection surprise on the eve of the Six Nations opener against Scotland in Dublin.
Jack Conan was injured at the World Cup. Doris stepped in at Leinster and quickly made a name for himself. Only 21 at the time, he got the nod to start at No8 in Ireland’s first game of 2020.
Such was his form, CJ Stander — a stalwart under Schmidt — was shifted to blindside flanker to accommodate him in a new-look backrow. A baptism of fire in a championship game at Aviva Stadium awaited.
Backing a rookie to start in such a pivotal position in your first assignment would seem like a risk, but Farrell knew Doris was the real deal. His progression to the top level had been flagged from a long way back.
From his early days at Blackrock College, when he was getting his game for the senior team at age 15, this Mayo-born backrower, who hails from the tiny village of Lacken, was destined for big things.
And the former Ireland U20 captain was settling well into international life, winning an early turnover penalty to settle some early nerves among an Irish squad who were still reeling from the public backlash of a woeful World Cup campaign in Japan.
His first Ireland cap lasted only four minutes, however. An early head injury ensured he was removed from the action. Rugby takes concussion very seriously these days, and rightly so.
Players are watched like hawks by medical personnel on the touchline. Any signs of grogginess, imbalance or dizziness and they are taken off the pitch. The HIA (head injury assessment) has become a familiar occurrence at games, week on week.
Doris failed it on that occasion. After another blow to the head in a league game against Treviso earlier in the season, it was decided that he should lay low for the second-round clash with Wales.
There was an appearance from the bench against England at Twickenham in round three and then the pandemic struck, putting the skids on a breakout season.
Doris quickly picked up where he left off last term. Quick, physical and skilful, Doris was making a name for himself. He was being hailed as a Lion-in-waiting as chat about Warren Gatland’s touring squad to South Africa began to intensify.
After a frustrating maiden Six Nations, the stage was set for Doris to star in the 2021 edition. He was in flying form for his province. Being a nailed-on starter in the Leinster backrow is quite the achievement when you have a roster brimming with international quality. Doris was one of the first names on Leo Cullen’s teamsheet.
Wales were first up in Cardiff and he looked primed to regain his No8 jersey. Farrell arranged a warm-up game against Ulster behind closed doors at the high-performance centre.
Doris didn’t feel right after that hit-out in Abbotstown. The son of two psychotherapists and a psychology graduate himself, Doris is well versed in the workings of the human brain. Something wasn’t quite right and, after consulting with the Irish medics, he was sent to Birmingham to meet with a neurologist to assess some worrying and ongoing concussion-related symptoms.
‘I had been a little bit worried about some symptoms at that stage,’ Doris recalled yesterday, looking back at that Ireland training session in February.
‘The medical staff were very accommodating in getting me seen by the best people. So, I got the battery of tests — everything from cognitive to balance to brain scans, bloods everything.
‘I’m pretty happy with where I am now. I have always got those baselines to look back to, if there are worries again in the future.
‘I am glad I did it, definitely a tough decision at the time, but grateful I did and grateful I am able to play again now.’
The symptoms he outlines were quite alarming. ‘Some cognitive ones, some around concentration, short-term memory sometimes, a little bit of speech stuff, but again, it’s hard to know when you’re getting a few of these knocks and you are sort of hyper aware and hyper vigilant of any deviation from any normal cognitive function.
‘So any sort of… can’t remember someone’s name or the name of something or forget to do something — you’re attributing it to these knocks, which mightn’t actually be the case. So, there is probably a bit of worry around it as well.
‘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 it probably was a little bit down from the knock.
‘But it’s back, thankfully. Back to my baseline, maybe not the normal baseline.’
Understandably, his recovery was managed carefully. Doris did not feature in the Six Nations. He missed some big Leinster games as well. Conan would end up touring with the Lions.
A dark season finished with a bright summer, Doris starting in both July Tests against America and Japan in the capital.
He has been a standout performer for Leinster in the opening block of the United Rugby Championship as well, dovetailing brilliantly with Conan in the backrow.
Now, he looks set to repay Farrell’s faith and become central to Ireland’s ambitions in the years ahead.Internet Explorer Channel Network