Belfast Telegraph

Doak's French class

Ulster boss has studied top 14 defeats in bid to outwit Toulon

By Jonathan Bradley

No opposing coach has ever masterminded an away victory against Toulon in Europe's premier competition and Ulster's Neil Doak admits that planning this afternoon's assault on the Stade Mayol poses something of a unique headache.

Ahead of the Champions Cup Pool 3 clash, he said: "There's no point in saying, 'you've got to watch him, and you've got to watch him' because you have to watch all 15 guys. They've got a star-studded squad."

Rumours of a flu virus in the camp sparked belief that the back-to-back champions may be under-strength, but instead they have named their usual array of stars.

While there is no Delon Armitage thanks to suspension and Matt Giteau drops out after returning last week, their backline - those suspected to be most afflicted with illness - still contains the likes of Leigh Halfpenny, Mathieu Bastareaud and Bryan Habana.

Doak, meanwhile, has rested Rory Best, Craig Gilroy and Tommy Bowe, while in the pack Mike McComish makes only his second appearance of the season.

Bernard Laporte's men have not been quite so all conquering domestically where they sit third in the Top 14 table - last weekend's win over Racing Metro was preceded by consecutive defeats to Montpellier and Stade Francais - and Ulster have been closely examining the successes of others.

"I've shown the guys, French teams are playing against them and causing them problems so there's stuff to work on," said Doak.

"We know that Europe is gone for us but it's up to us to try and put Toulon under a bit of pressure.

"We've got to use that ball and if we're clinical, then we can do well."

Regardless of today's result, Ulster have little chance of progressing to the quarter-finals for the fifth time in succession and the rookie head coach acknowledges that their continental endeavours this year have not gone to plan.

"We're disappointed with the way the European campaign has gone but it's something that we've got to deal with. If you look at the injuries we've had, it's stretched resources a little bit," he said.

"There's a good buzz about the place, and people on the outside might not think that, but there is.

"It's had to be a lighter workload but to be fair to the guys, they've stuck to the task and trained hard."

The shorter preparation time comes thanks to a six-day turnaround after last Sunday's 24-20 win against Treviso.

While on the face of it, a nervy excursion in northern Italy does not seem the best preparation for a meeting with the side who won the last two Heineken Cups, but Doak thinks his side displayed some encouraging signs.

Ulster scored three tries inside the first 25 minutes at the Stadio Monigo and, even if the 20 unanswered points scored by their hosts and the inability to secure the bonus point will have grated, the 17 clean line breaks were the most by any PRO12 side in a single game this season.

"The last couple of months we've been playing in atrocious conditions so we couldn't do much expansive stuff but on Sunday we were able to move the ball around in the right areas," said the 42-year-old. "That's the type of rugby we want to play. If a couple of things had gone our way we could have been in for another few scores.

"We maybe got a bit giddy with regards to the bonus but we talked about it and in hindsight maybe you take the points in front of the posts and keep the scoreboard ticking over.

"The way the game finished was disappointing but the stuff that we're working on in training is starting to come to fruition."

Meanwhile, former Ulster coach Mark McCall insists that the possibility of pool-stage elimination is not in Saracens' thought process as they prepare for a crunch European Champions Cup clash against Munster.

"It is a big game - the first knockout game of the year, really," Saracens rugby director McCall said. "It's the same for both teams, and we know that."

Asked about the possibility of making an early exit, McCall added: "Of course it would be disappointing, but you don't think like that. You just crack on with the next thing.

"This time last year, Northampton were knocked out of the (European) competition and were second or third in the Aviva Premiership, but then went on to beat us in the Premiership final.

"You deal with the blows along the way, but we are not thinking like that, we're thinking about beating Munster this weekend and then going to Clermont to try and win the group. That is the objective.

"Munster have this uncanny ability to raise their game when required. But we are in that position as well in that we have phenomenal games in us when we've needed them. We've proved that over the last 18 months. We know this is the biggest game of the season so far."

Belfast Telegraph


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