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We can conquer step into unknown at Oyonnax, says Doak

By Michael Sadlier

Published 13/11/2015

Ulster head coach Neil Doak
Ulster head coach Neil Doak

With Les Kiss now fronting it all up, you might think that Neil Doak would only be too glad to take a less prominent role when it comes to dispensing soundbites.

But apparently not as the Ulster head coach racked up midweek to discuss the beginning of another European adventure tomorrow.

And there's plenty to ponder as this time the squad are heading for a new part of France - in the Alpine region - for their first ever meeting with Oyonnax, who are actually making their debut appearance in Europe's elite competition.

And the French club - who are currently struggling in the Top14 and as a result sacked coach Olivier Azam yesterday - play on an artificial surface, which means that the ball will have a greater bounce while it will also travel further courtesy of Stade Charles Mathon being situated around 550 metres above sea level.

At least Ulster have been putting in the hours on the artificial pitch next door, at Aquinas school, but playing at a greater elevation is something they will just have to deal with on the day.

Ulster will be going all out to bag a highly-prized away win at Oyonnax which, though they won't openly admit it, appears the most achievable result outside Belfast with trips to other Pool One rivals Saracens and Toulouse looking much more daunting.

Doak admitted: "It's their first time in Europe and we know it's going to be pretty ferocious, especially on that surface.

"But we're lucky we have the (artificial) surface out the back (at Aquinas school) and Cardiff have already laid one and we've played (and won) there so the only thing to take into consideration is the bounce of the ball.

"It will be a packed and vocal house and it's a new experience for us but that's what the Champions Cup brings as you get exposed to different cultures, teams and styles of play."

Having said that, Ulster know what is coming with Oyonnax - who have former squad member Pedrie Wannenburg in their ranks - focusing on set-piece power plays from their pack.

But Ulster, after years of failure, have acquired the knowledge of how to get the better of French teams in their own back yards with that having begun with a pre-season friendly win at Bayonne in 2012 before the more notable European victories at Castres and Montpellier.

"Yes, they'll be physical, abrasive and have a big maul and we have to negate that and make sure we have our platform," Doak explained while emphasising that Oyonnax's recent poor run in the Top14 is no indicator to how things will pan out tomorrow.

"Set-pieces are a key aspect in the French game. We are more than capable of matching that and using the ball to move some of their bigger guys around."

Sounds fine but Ulster know they must maintain their sometimes flaky discipline, especially after shipping two yellow cards during last Sunday's first away win of the season at Dragons.

"If you give any penalties away you are going to be under pressure and with it being a bit above sea level the ball is going to travel further," Doak stated.

Still, though they have never been to Oyonnax, the memory of taking Montpellier apart in 2013 might be of assistance.

"We'd definitely take that this weekend," he added.

Belfast Telegraph

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