ONE IRELAND NUMBER eight, Jack Conan, is heading on the Lions tour this summer and another, CJ Stander, is hanging his boots up after years of high-quality service.
But Andy Farrell’s depth chart at the back of the scrum is looking very healthy for the future, as highlighted by the performances of Caelan Doris and Gavin Coombes for Leinster and Munster against Dragons and Zebre, respectively, last night.
Their dominant showings were no surprise and while Farrell won’t have learned anything new from watching these Rainbow Cup clashes, it was encouraging to see both young back rows in such good form.
It could even be that Farrell uses both of them in the same Irish starting back row next month as his team take on Japan and the US in Dublin. Longer-term, it looks certain that Doris and Coombes will be regular fixtures in green jerseys.
Of course, Doris is already an Ireland international with seven caps to his name. Had this season worked out differently, the Mayo man would have been in contention for the Lions squad. Instead, he was sidelined by concussion – Leinster and Ireland deserve credit for their patient approach – and Conan swept in to take advantage impressively.
Doris has made his Leinster return in recent weeks and last night was his best performance yet, as he delivered a varied, relentless, and skillful performance. His impact was telling from early in the game.
Like any good number eight, Doris’ ball-carrying is a key strength and the effort above to break out of Leinster’s 22 leads on to Garry Ringrose scoring down the other end of the pitch two phases later.
Doris has an excellent set of tools around his carrying, including subtle footwork to bring himself clear of tacklers’ shoulders, a strong fend, and dogged leg drive in contact.
Below, we see the feet, fend, fight and finish from Doris to beat opposite number Ross Moriarty again.
Doris’ effort gets Leinster back over the gainline and they score in the right corner through Jordan Larmour two phases later.
The Ballina RFC and Blackrock College product generally does lots of this hard carrying in traffic close to the ruck for Leinster, making his average return of 4.4 metres gained per carry particularly impressive last night.
Doris’ handling ability means he is more than a carrying threat, however, as shown with six passes against Dragons last night.
Dragons are obviously concerned about a Doris carry in the instance above but he swivels to pull the ball behind Ross Byrne to scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park.
The pass isn’t perfect, slightly high at Gibson-Park’s head as Jamie Roberts makes a good initial read, but it’s well-weighted and the Leinster scrum-half does superbly to slip out of Roberts’ tackle attempt before passing on to Hugo Keenan, who puts Larmour over in the right corner.
Doris’ ability to carry or pass makes both skills more effective, leaving the defence with more to worry about. While he is at home in more congested central areas, Doris’ comfort on the ball means he’s also effective in the 15-metre channels.
In the example above, Doris runs an excellent straightening line onto the ball to tie in Dragons wing Owen Jenkins for a moment before releasing the ball to Scott Penny, who delivers a strong finish for another Leinster try.
Below, we see Doris showing his offloading ability, while he also had a couple of tip-on passes in this game.
Defensively, Doris completed all but one of his 16 tackle attempts and had a major try-saving moment in the first half when his team were down to 14 players with Rónan Kelleher in the sin bin.
We can see the Leinster number eight coming from the far edge of the preceding ruck below as the Dragons attack to their right, producing a linebreak.
Doris recognises the danger and works hard downfield as Josh Lewis breaks and passes back inside to scrum-half Rhodri Williams on an excellent support line.
The Wales international very nearly scores but Doris produces a wonderful bit of defence to wrap Williams from behind, strip the ball loose with his left hand, then flick it away with his left boot to save Leinster.
Doris is also a consistent breakdown threat despite being tall at 6ft 4ins.
His decision-making, bravery, and technical skill make him one of Leinster’s key jackals as we saw again at the RDS last night.
Above, Doris assists in the tackle on Williams, shows a very rapid release, and then leans in over onto the ball – cleverly appreciating that the arriving Dragons players will clear him up into a better position. Doris actually manages to come away with the ball for a clean turnover in this instance.
While Doris didn’t win any lineouts last night, his height and spring make him a good option in that area of the game, while he has been working hard on his maul skills and detail.
The 23-year-old is on the way to being a complete number eight, while Munster man Coombes is on a similar journey.
The Skibbereen RFC and Bandon Grammar School product is also 23 but has yet to win a Test cap, something that will almost certainly change next month. Coombes has had a superb season for his native province, suggesting that he is ready to fill the departing Stander’s boots.
Yesterday in Parma, he scored four times to end the campaign with a remarkable total of 15 tries in 22 appearances.
Four tries from just 12 carries is a serious strike rate and, typically, Coombes was lethal from close-range for three of his scores.