Neil Doak backs team to bounce back and end season on a high
Ulster suffered a record European Cup loss on Saturday, being thumped 60-22 by champions Toulon. The crushing defeat sparked much debate amongst Ulster fans and raised numerous questions. Yesterday we put them to Ulster Head Coach Neil Doak.
SB: So, Neil, how do you reflect on Saturday's defeat to Toulon now?
ND: I'm still disappointed. To leak 60 points for any Ulster team is unacceptable. I told the guys that this morning. We could have controlled some things better on the pitch and we didn't do that. We knew it was going to be a very difficult game away from home against the European Champions and for 30 minutes we were pretty competitive. We created some opportunities and I think in the 33rd minute it was 13-10, then a couple of refereeing decisions didn't go our way and suddenly it was 27-10 at half-time. As for the final scoreline that's certainly not the profile we want for Ulster Rugby. Leaking eight tries is not what we are about.
SB: It's been suggested that in some quarters that Ulster surrendered. What would you say to that?
ND: To say surrender is harsh. If you look at the game for 33 minutes we were competitive. We lost our out half (Paddy Jackson), our starting winger (Louis Ludik) and you are playing Bryan Habana and Drew Mitchell against Michael Heaney and Paul Marshall. It's a different stratosphere with regards to the player profile and level of experience. Our defence has been competitive over the last number of years, but if you don't have a full side up against Toulon and you pick up injuries during the game and you have guys playing out of position, they can do some damage. But we know the end result wasn't acceptable and we have to work hard for the rest of the season to put this game behind us and put in performances that we and the supporters are happy with.
SB: One year ago Ulster topped their European Cup group with six wins out of six. This time they have won just one from five, are bottom and out of the competition. How do you explain that?
ND: By controlling certain aspects of our game better we would have won more matches in Europe this year. Regarding the six wins out of six last season I would say we were pretty consistent in our selection and availability of players. If you look at the profile of injuries this season we have internationals who haven't played a game for us and other players who have picked up long term injuries. It's pretty catastrophic from that point of view and the injuries are all to potential starting players like Andrew Trimble, Chris Henry, Iain Henderson, Nick Williams, Dan Tuohy, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey and Ruan Pienaar was out for a lengthy period. At the weekend we lost Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding and Louis Ludik. Probably the only team that could deal with that would be Toulon.
When you lose the experience of Johann Muller, Stephen Ferris, Tom Court, John Afoa and Paddy Wallace, as we did at the end of last season that does not help. They were five big personalities and big players for us and it takes time for new players to come in, grow and gel together.
SB: The thing is those big players weren't adequately replaced. Is that a fair viewpoint?
ND: I suppose when you look at it in simple terms, it is. You have seasoned internationals there that we have lost, World Cup winners and British Lions and sometimes that can be difficult to replace immediately. The guys that have come in have settled in pretty well but it will take time for them to develop.
SB: From the outside looking in I thought the IRFU and Ulster could have handled the situation much better when coach Mark Anscombe and then the Director of Rugby David Humphreys left in the summer. Les Kiss came in temporarily and will return to Ulster after the World Cup and you were left to pick up the pieces as Head Coach. I wonder do you think you were dealt a fair hand?
ND: With the head coach and Director of Rugby going there was a bit of turmoil. Les (Kiss) came in for an interim period and went back to Ireland so we are probably a little bit short coaching staff wise now. It was always going to be a difficult task to keep things on track especially with all our injuries. It has been frustrating that this season hasn't gone as we had hoped but that doesn't mean we give up. We have to keep working hard.
SB: Have you been surprised how tough this season's been?
ND: No. It's professional sport. We are dealing in small margins and if you don't get them right it can cost you dearly and that's what happened to us. Due to our injuries a lot of players are having to play a lot of rugby this season and the knock on effect is that they become tired and are not as effective and performances dip.
SB: You've had some criticism yourself. Fair or not?
ND: When you look at it from the outside people see things as black or white and maybe don't have a full understanding of what goes on in the background. Ulster have been pretty successful the last number of years and now that's what people expect. As a coaching staff, players and an organisation so do we.
SB: Ultimately what Ulster fans want to know is will things improve this season?
ND: Well, first up we'll aim to beat Leicester in front of a big crowd at the Kingspan on Saturday to end what has been a disappointing European campaign on a high and then we can take stock over the new couple of weeks when there is a break. There is still a lot to play for in the Pro 12. If we can get some of the big players back from injury we will be looking to win the games to get us into the top four at least and even make the top two to guarantee a home play-off game at the Kingspan.
SB: Okay then Neil, come the end of the season what would satisfy you as Head Coach?
ND: A Pro 12 title. The European competition has gone for us but now we have to focus our efforts on making sure Ulster have a Pro 12 title at the end of the season.
SB: So, after all that has gone this season do you still genuinely feel you can win the Pro 12 title?
ND: Definitely I do. We have a decent run of fixtures coming up and I believe we can deliver the results we need.