European Champions Cup Oyonnax v Ulster: Neil Doak eyes up the options in quest for success
As Ulster continue to negotiate a packed fixture schedule, head coach Neil Doak has warned it's impossible to expect the team's frontline stars to play a full part in the crucial conclusion to their Champions Cup pool.
The province go to Oyonnax on Sunday before visiting Saracens and hosting the return game against this weekend's French opponents, in what is a run of three consecutive European contests that will decide their fate in the competition.
Having beaten four-time winners Toulouse home and away last month, Ulster have realistic ambitions of a quarter-final place but, with the condensed scheduling of a World Cup year creating a logjam, Doak and the management team must think long and hard about how best to utilise their playing resources without hampering the push for a place in the knockouts.
"There are no easy games, but we have got to be sensible with player management," said Doak (pictured).
"Three European games on the bounce is tough and it can be difficult fitting the jigsaw together.
"We've a few bumps and bruises and we'll be sitting down over the next couple of days to take a look at the selection.
"How much rugby people have played, and are projected to play, has to be considered in that.
"When you're on a roll, you want to keep that roll going but you know that players can't go six, eight, 10 games on the bounce.
"Europe is special and everybody wants to play but ultimately that's not realistic."
With this weekend's game having initially been scheduled for November before a postponement in light of the Paris terror attacks - Ulster originally would have faced Newport Gwent Dragons at home in the PRO12 this week - matters have been made all the more complicated with the team's Ireland contingent spending the early part of this week at the traditional New Year's training camp.
The likes of Paddy Jackson and Stuart McCloskey, who were both in attendance at Carton House, have been selected for every game they've been available for and Doak said that some players have had to plumb the depths of their reserves.
"We'll see how the guys come back from (the) Ireland (camp), look at how a few bumps and bruises have progressed, and adjust accordingly," he added.
"You have your plans in place for player management but as we've seen when you pick up injuries in certain areas then they're out the window," Doak explained.
"Some players have had to dig a little bit deeper than they may otherwise and that's the nature of pro rugby now.
"The Irish guys being away, we knew we were going to have to taper off a bit at the start of this week but, with the game being on a Sunday, it gives us that flexibility."