Former Ulster and Ireland skipper Rory Best believes Nathan Doak could be ready to put the pressure on John Cooney as early as next season.
The northern province returned to pre-season training last week ahead of the start of their rebranded league campaign at the end of September without any new signings after a move for Leone Nakarawa collapsed over a failed medical.
Among the summer departures was former All Black scrum-half Alby Mathewson, leaving Dan McFarland with only Dave Shanahan and Doak to back-up Cooney in the nine jersey he has made his own since arriving from Connacht four years ago.
Doak, although only a little over a year out of school where he starred at Wallace High, was an impressive performer for the Irish under-20s during their delayed Six Nations campaign last month and caught the eye of Best when the decorated former hooker was working with Ulster Academy last season.
“I’ve been really impressed," said Best of Nathan, who is the son of his former Ulster coach Neil Doak."It’s like everything, I remember when Luke Fitzgerald left school and first came into the senior team, his sheer physical size for a ‘child’ was incredible.
“That was one of the first things that struck you about Nathan Doak when you met him - I did a bit of stuff with the Academy - was the sheer physical size of him.
“You then see how smart a rugby player he is and yes, he’s young and has a few rough edges that need to be smoothed out, but his ability to learn quickly and read the game are just exceptional.
“With any player, you need a little bit of luck and a few breaks, but you want him to get chances alongside Billy Burns and the top players playing around him, to give him a real opportunity.
“I think the future’s very bright for him and it’s great to see these young Ulster players coming through and doing well.
“I’m sure he’s been very well coached since he was no age, so it’s great."
Cooney finished last season on the treatment table thanks to a neck injury, subsequently missing Ireland's summer Tests against Japan and the USA.Having not been capped since prior to the pandemic, the 31-year-old recently said that international honours "probably wouldn’t be as much of an ambition anymore."
Given the prolonged absence of Irish internationals during the season, Best believes Ireland's loss will be Ulster's gain but wants to see Doak soon applying pressure on the undisputed first choice scrum-half.
"It’s Ulster’s gain if he plays and is playing every week.
“For the likes of John and any other player, all you can do is keep playing well when you get selected and keep that faith in your own ability.“
That’s John’s challenge now to keep going and ultimately it’s about what you do on the pitch and look in the mirror at the end of it and go ‘yeah, I played well’.
“By and large, there are certain people’s opinions that matter and certain people’s opinions that don’t and I think John just has to find those people who matter and keep working hard.
“As long as you’re playing well and enjoying rugby, sure it’s sport and isn’t that what you want to do.
“I think it’s going to be an interesting season for him because for the first time he’s probably by the end of the season potentially come under a little bit of pressure.
"It would be great to see if he responds because I think Nathan Doak is going to be a fantastic talent and I’d like to see him get some gametime and see how much he can grow and how much pressure he can put on John.
“Ultimately, that’s beneficial for both of them and for Ulster."
Ulster's next game is a pre-season friendly with Mark McCall's Saracens at Kingspan Stadium on September 3.