Doak at heart of Ulster’s electrifying try-scoring machine
When you ask Neil Doak to define the job he does the answer he gives is rather conservative.
“Basically I look after the backs — that’s my primary role — and at the moment I’m working on attack structures along with Brian (McLaughlin); the team policies in different areas of the pitch, what we’re trying to do and how we’re looking to break down opposition defences,” he replies.
That’s a bit like Wladimir Klitschko explaining that his role as a boxer is to hit people in order to prevent them hitting him. In terms of its accuracy it’s completely true, but it’s only part of the story — and not even the best part.
For what Doak — Ulster’s backline coach — has helped to mastermind is the sort of fast, free-flowing, high-scoring football that puts backsides on seats. Not that the owners of those said-posteriors remain seated for long, for when Ulster run the ball those same spectators are on their feet.
Check the top of RaboDirect PRO12 table and you will find that Ulster, with 52, have scored more tries than any other side; runaway leaders Leinster have 47, while Ospreys (2nd), Munster (3rd), Glasgow (4th) and Scarlets (5th) have managed 42, 40, 32 and 35 respectively.
Ulster’s 466 ‘points for’ tally eclipses that of Munster (453), Glasgow (421) and Scarlets (417).
And when it comes to bonuses for scoring four or more tries it’s Ulster and Leinster who lead the way with five apiece.
As a result, Doak has enough figurative feathers in his metaphoric hat to rival an Apache chief’s headdress. The former Ireland international cricketer is gaining quite a reputation as a backs’ coach.
“The players seem to be happy enough with the way things are going,” he says modestly.
“We’ve passed the 50-mark for tries scored this season and that’s a combination of some good rugby by the backs and the forwards sneaking in for the odd one plus a few push-over tries and penalty tries.
“Over the past few years we’ve been steadily improving. Whenever Matt Williams was here and I was just looking after the skills I didn’t really get much time with that and we’d 33 tries.
“In the last three seasons we’ve been getting it better — 40, 44 and now 52 this year. The players have been starting to understand pretty well what we’re trying to do.
“I think that’s why we’ve been able to compete so well, though it has been a little disappointing when one or two games haven’t gone our way. The players know themselves that we’ve actually left a few more tries on the table, so it could have been closer to 60 this year.
“We have played some good stuff, so hopefully we can finish this season on a high and get a European Cup medal.”
Asked if this is the best set of Ulster backs he has worked with he replies: “I suppose they are, yes. They have all matured a bit in the past couple of seasons.”
On Saturday they face the biggest game of their Ulster careers to date against opponents of whom Doak is highly respectful. As a backs coach, he sees the Scots’ strengths behind the pack.
“Edinburgh have done unbelievably well in the European Cup and we’ve actually struggled a little bit against them because they have played a bit of rugby,” he cautions.
“They do stretch teams and obviously (Tim) Visser on the wing has been pretty outstanding for them. They can play a free-flowing game.
“Mike Blair at scrum-half is still going well and (Craig) Laidlaw has settled in quite well at 10; he can kick goals and sweep ball away to wide channels just as well as Blair so they can play a high-tempo.
“They changed things a little bit against Toulouse and did very, very well to win that game. They were pretty confident going into that and it showed.
“They’ve got a sprinkling of internationals in their back line and they’ve got a bit of pace so that’s the way they have tried to play in the past number of years — with tempo, putting opponents under pressure with ball in hand. They’ve done that to a reasonable extent.
“Obviously when you get to cup rugby it’s about on the day. Who’s going to make little mistakes, who’s going to perform, who’s going to take their chances?
“You’re only two games away from winning the European Cup, but you have to treat it as just another game and focus on the basics.
“Now, obviously it’s not just another game — it’s not every week you get to play at the Aviva Stadium knowing that if you win you’re going to Twickenham for a European Cup final. But as a management we’ve got to try and build that to a level but not let it get over the edge.”