Ulster head coach Neil Doak confident duo will return for crunch Euro clash
Even accepting that injuries will forever be a part of rugby, Neil Doak could be forgiven for cursing his recent run of luck.
While last weekend's bonus-point win over the Scarlets has revived their previously moribund chances in the Champions Cup, with another must-win fixture against the men from west Wales looming on Sunday, the Ulster head coach has been forced to reshuffle his plans after yet more frontline players picked up injuries.
After watching Wiehahn Herbst, Nick Williams, Franco van der Merwe, Stuart Olding and Stuart McCloskey hobble off with various complaints, Doak likened the dressing room to a "war-zone" in his post-match analysis of the bruising first half of their European double-header - and there was little good news once the knocks had been assessed.
Both Herbst and Williams strained their hamstrings and were sent for MRI scans on Monday night, Doak admitting both were highly unlikely to feature this weekend.
The elbow injury suffered by McCloskey will rule him out but there remains some hope for the concussed pair of Van der Merwe and Olding.
"Nick, Wiehahn and Stuart McCloskey are more than likely going to be missing," said Doak.
"The other two we're just going to have to wait and see at the back end of this week.
"With the extra day, we're quietly confident."
Elaborating on the blow suffered by Olding, he added: "He got a split head as well so we just have to see what that wound is like. There's a few staples in his head."
Ulster are already without Jared Payne, Andrew Trimble, Paddy Jackson, Chris Henry and Iain Henderson, although Luke Marshall will come back into the mix after a knee injury, and Doak admits that the number of absentees is proving problematic given European Champions Cup rules stipulate that he picks from only a 38-man panel.
"We're under a little bit of pressure with regards to that," he said. "I suppose it's like every rugby team at this stage of the season. There's bodies on the physio table."
Despite the focus on fresh injury concerns, there was still time for Doak, a former number nine himself, to praise the contribution made by his returning scrum-half Ruan Pienaar on Saturday.
He said: "It's sometimes a little bit hard to measure presence but for Ruan to be out so long and come back (was impressive). As he said on Saturday, there's parts of his game that he needs to improve on but, look, with game time that will come.
"He's a quality player and it was very good to get him back. It gives you that other base that you can play off, especially in damp conditions."
Doak was non-committal when discussing whether Pienaar would be his goal-kicker on Sunday after Ian Humphreys endured a disappointing two from six day off the tee last weekend.
"Ian wasn't as accurate as he would have hoped but conditions were quite difficult, it was pretty swirly.
"With regards to the wind, it does deflect just off the different shapes now in the ground and can be quite difficult to read.
"I suppose if one is not going right then there's decent back-up to fall back on.
"Ruan hadn't been in the mix with regards to games over the last few months, that's why Ian was kicking (last Saturday)."
The five points picked up at the Kingspan Stadium, as well as Leicester's defeat of Toulon at Welford Road, has opened up Pool 3 but, with defeat once again not an option, Doak believes it will be a different challenge going on the road.
Wayne Pivac's men are formidable at Parc y Scarlets, having only lost there twice in 2014, and they too cannot afford a reverse.
"This weekend is a must-win for us, it's a must-win for Scarlets," he said.
"They'll be disappointed and they'll be a hell of a lot better. They'll be looking to turn that round.
"They're a decent side at home. They're very proud. The game won't be as fractured but if they get quality platforms, with the midfield they have, and the runners, they can do damage."
Ulster's coach knows that, whoever he manages to get on the field, will need to be at their best.
Champions Cup: Parc y Scarlets, Sunday, 5.15 pm - |Scarlets v Ulster