Dan Tuohy maybe hit on something when recently asked to comment on this season’s accelerated rise to prominence of one Nathan Doak.
“Doaky? You know he reminds me a bit of (Ruan) Pienaar in the way he goes about things, though obviously a ginger version,” said the former Ulster Rugby lock who still recalls the then schoolboy and his brother being around training sessions when dad Neil was looking after the senior team.
It seems appropriate that someone who was so steeped in the place — Doak was also team mascot over a decade ago and later turned up as a ball boy on match nights — is now part of the senior squad and widely tipped to be going places even though he has just turned 20.
Just 13 appearances in — ahead of tonight’s clash with Scarlets — and his name is mentioned in the same breath as Ulster’s other backline shining lights Robert Baloucoune, James Hume and Michael Lowry.
Not bad for the scrum-half who fearlessly stepped up when John Cooney broke down, coming off the bench half an hour into this season’s opener against Glasgow, and proceeding to leave an indelible mark on what followed.
The then 19-year-old, then only making his third senior appearance since debuting in December 2020, looked comfortable and confident and has done so ever since whether slotting shots from the tee, scoring tries, putting balls to the sky or just motoring Ulster forward.
His form and impact has been such that he must surely have been mentioned when Andy Farrell was pondering his Six Nations squad and it must really just be a matter of time before he gets a chance at Test level and go one better than dad and former Ulster head coach Neil — currently coaching the Academy — who as a player was in a World Cup squad, and on an Ireland bench, but never capped.
His uber-competitiveness is in the genes, as is the fact that Doak junior is level-headed and in no way dazzled by the glare of his rise to prominence.
But what about that Pienaar comment, fair enough or just a throwaway observation?
He doesn’t avoid the query. Indeed, when the schoolboy version of Doak was able to get himself to the Kingspan, he was absorbing everything and especially so from a world-class operator who happened to play at nine.
As the former Wallace High School pupil explains: “I suppose when I do look at myself and review games, especially when I was younger, I did notice I used to try and do things that Pienaar did, and you don’t even realise you’re doing them. Watching Pienaar was awesome at a young age and a real privilege.”
Which leads him directly onto his current rival at scrum-half, a certain Cooney whose injury issues have opened the door for Doak to showcase his skills.
“Then following Pienaar has been John Cooney and getting to watch him has been great and it’s been great for Ulster to see two great scrum-halves (here). If you can pick up anything off them then you’ll not go far wrong,” Doak adds.
So far, he’s doing fine and has made his own mark on that No.9 shirt. Funnily enough, he’s keen to keep hold of it and seems to be dealing well with the pressure.
“I’ve loved playing in the big games and (with) getting a taste of it now, I want more,” he says with pure conviction and no bombast.
“When you go out there you want to enjoy yourself and give the best account of yourself.
“That’s something I’ve tried to do this season. I don’t think too much about my age, to be honest.
“If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.”
And the pressure? Well, it’s always there, but he has quite an answer for that.
“I don’t see it as pressure (to play for Ulster),” he said. “I see it as a privilege.
“When you’re playing in front of 18,000 people, there’s guys in the crowd who will be looking up to you. I don’t look at that as pressure, I look at that as a privilege that I get to go out there and represent those people.
“That’s been instilled in me from a young age and that’s probably how I’d look at it. I’m just grateful I get to do it.”
His dad has, naturally, been a huge influence and remains so, though Doak junior is, nevertheless, very much his own man too.
“He’s always there to give me a hand if I need it and it’s great to have him back (at Ulster), though I suppose it’s all a bit different now that I’ve moved up from the Academy,” he says.
Indeed, Ulster were swift to secure him for the immediate future at the back end of 2021 when Doak signed up to a four-year deal to stay at his home province.
It sounds like he had no qualms putting pen to paper.
“Everyone knows how much this club means to me,” Doak explains.
“When Ulster got in touch with me about extending my deal, it was something that I didn’t really think about.
“I want to stay here, I want to make a name here and I want to win trophies here.
“Hopefully I can repay that back to the club in the four years I’m here and (that we can) go on a journey together.”
Naturally, there will be kinks on that road and, on the field, not all he does goes to plan, but Doak already has enough nous to get through while the advice of more experienced team-mates is always to hand and welcome.
Out-half Billy Burns is cited as an important influence and, indeed, part of Doak’s job is to provide him with an accurate and reliable service.
“Billy has been awesome for me,” says Doak.
“He fills me with unbelievable confidence. He knows my ability and I feel a lot of trust from him and I love working with him.
“If I do make a mistake, he’s the first one to come over to me. At the weekend, I missed two kicks from the touchline in a row and got the third one, and when we went in at half-time, he came over and made a wee joke (about it).”
Duane Vermeulen is also mentioned, a scrum-half’s relationship with a No.8 also being significant.
“I’d actually speak to him a lot,” says Doak.
“And he’s given me some pointers which are good, more psychology pointers as a young kid. He makes you feel relaxed.”
And yet for all his on-pitch maturity, Doak knows he is only really starting out and, as such, there is much still to be experienced and absorbed.
“It’s not always going to go your way but you keep trying,” he adds. “I’m still young, I’ve got so much to learn and I’m not going to neglect any learning at this age.”
So far, he is clearly making the grade.