Caelan Doris is the right man in the right spot at the right time.
This weekend may be the most unpredictable of the year in the rugby season. Back-to-back European games have a habit of confounding expectations and form. Sides win comfortably one week but can then inexplicably suffer a reverse against the same opposition next time out.
Leinster’s No. 8 is still raw at this level. Just 93 minutes of Heineken Champions Cup rugby have been banked, but the 21-year old is learning quickly when it comes to the vagaries of home and away matches, and the influence the surroundings have on performances and outcomes.
Currently in the final year of a Psychology degree at UCD, his research project will focus on the relationship between mental toughness and how it affects a team’s ability to perform on home soil and on its travels. His personal experience will feed into that.
“I highly enjoy playing away,” he explains ahead of Saturday’s Dublin date with a Northampton side they beat 43-16 at Franklin’s Gardens last week.
“I like coming up against hostile crowds, (like) the Glasgow game (two weeks ago) and Saturday. They were very enjoyable games, but that’s a pretty subjective view.”
Leinster have spoken about the unique demands of these back-to-back fixtures. Doris was only 15 years old when the Saints conceded 40 points to Leinster at their own place and then turned the tables on the province in the Aviva a week later — but the lesson has been digested all the same.
There is an understanding that Leinster were far from perfect last week, particularly so in a first half which featured some sloppy handling and issues at the breakdown where their discipline was sorely tested, but forewarned will surely be forearmed this time around.
The win last Saturday was Doris’ first real opportunity to strut his stuff on the continental stage, following on from a two-minute cameo last season and a start against Treviso in round one this term which was cut frustratingly short after 15 minutes by a head injury.
A standout player for Ireland at an U20s grade in which he could boss the opposition, he struggled to adjust to the pace and physicality of the senior game last season, but Doris cut a confident figure as Leinster pushed up through the gears at Franklin’s Gardens.
“He was class,” said Rhys Ruddock at the weekend.
I thought he made a big difference in attack. Some of his work around the breakdown, big picks-and-goes, carries, a real physical presence. Then, defensively, he’d a couple of turnovers and scramble efforts that proved important.
“He’s had another great game, there’s loads of competition as always there and Max is playing really well. There’s a few guys to come back from injury too, it’s exciting.”
The plan from here on is straightforward.
“Just continue winning collisions on both sides of the ball,” said Doris, “making as many metres as possible off carries and hopefully freeing up my hands and bringing more offloads back into the game as well, which was probably one of my strengths at underage.
“Obviously it’s harder again at this level, but hopefully that will eventually shine through.”
Leo Cullen has said before that players playing European rugby for their provinces are basically on the verge of an elevation to the national side and all the indications are that Doris will continue to play a key role for Leinster for the foreseeable. So...
Jack Conan is still rehabbing the injury he suffered during the World Cup. That leaves Doris and Max Deegan duking it out for the no 8 jersey. Keep winning that race and he should start to think about maybe swapping blue for green come the new year.
Andy Farrell will bring his first Ireland squad together this month for a one-day camp and, while there are more experienced candidates in the queue behind CJ Stander right now, momentum can be a wonderful thing — even as Doris insists that a call-up is the last thing on his mind.
“It is so competitive in here that my main focus is on here (in Leinster) and trying to get the eight jersey and play the best that I can when I get that opportunity. So I haven’t really thought too far beyond that,” he said.
“It’s not a guarantee at all that I am going to be in this position. Jack is out as well. I’m enjoying it at the minute and hopefully if I get the opportunity again I’ll take it with both hands.”