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Ulster can bare their teeth in the Tigers' lair: Doak

Understandably, the game-plan is staying under wraps and Neil Doak talks around the issue for this, his first full week officially heading things up after (finally) being named head coach nine days previously.

The 42-year-old only bristles when the notion is put his way that while Ulster’s general forward play looks to be in pretty rude health, perhaps their dynamic ball-carrying up front is maybe not what it should be going into Saturday’s European opener at Welford Road with Leicester Tigers in their sights again.

“What do you mean? Oh I don’t know about that,” is Doak’s sharp reply as he flashes a look across the table.

“For us it’s a team effort. It’s good to have physicality in the carries and we’re happy with our level of physicality for Saturday evening so if we can do that and add more to that then we’ll take it.”

Fair enough and his refusal to yield any ground on the issue is a mirror image of what Ulster must do if they are to experience another victory at the Tigers’ home ground to neatly sit alongside the one they dug out last January when Ruan Pienaar racked up all 22 points.

The visitors expended every ounce of energy into bagging their sixth win from six pool games that evening, while also copper-fastening a home quarter-final.

“Yes, at the end of the group stages last season the boys were pretty drained and it was a phenomenal effort (at Leicester) and, of course, we played them twice last year and both games were very, very tough.”

He has his own history when it comes to tackling the Tigers and played in the side which famously trounced them 33-0 back in January 2004 on that Sunday game at Ravenhill, with a certain David Humphreys outside him at fly-half and current squad member Roger Wilson at number eight, before Martin Johnson et al got their own back in some style the following week for the return leg.

Anyway, the Ravenhill experience was a memorable afternoon for Doak who had not long returned from being part of Ireland’s World Cup squad the previous autumn where he had been part of a small core of players unused by then coach Eddie O’Sullivan and, indeed, the scrum-half never did win a cap for Ireland which would have secured for him the distinction of being a dual international at rugby and cricket.

Fast forward to Ulster’s other clashes with Leicester in recent years and Doak has been part of the coaching ticket but, this time, he is no longer in a support role; he is the main man plotting the English Premiership side’s downfall.

And if there was such a thing as a ‘boot room’ philosophy at the now Kingspan Stadium then Doak would very much fit the bill having served the province as a player, an employee — he became an IRFU development officer 20 years ago — and as a coach who started out at underage grade before gradually ascending the path towards involvement in the senior side.

You wonder if having the name head coach now formally attached to him — his influence on the training paddock had already grown considerably over the last couple of seasons — has made any fundamental difference to the way he goes about things.

“I suppose yes and no,” he answers. “Selection wise it does become slightly different,” he adds with typical understatement.

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Doak is far too self-effacing to expound on analysing himself, so locating just what he brings to the party is probably best left to a player who is familiar with the evolution of his rise.

Tom Court’s observations are apt and based on working closely with the attack coach even though Doak’s primary focus, during the now London Irish prop’s time with Ulster, would have been the backline.

“That’s probably one of the best moves Ulster could have made, promoting a local guy who’s been there a long time and who’s a guy the players respect very highly,” is Court’s reaction to Doak’s elevation.

“He has a brilliant rugby mind and he’s really grown into the role,” he adds.

Last week’s win over Glasgow was a pretty good way to start but coming away with another on Saturday evening will not only set out Doak’s stall as a coach who is going places but will also bring an early and significant return on Ulster’s investment in him.

To take the scalp of the Tigers again would give the squad the ideal momentum to take towards hosting champions Toulon the following week.

When pressed to reveal just a bit more on what Ulster intend to bring to Welford Road, Doak talks of the small margins between victory and defeat and how only an intelligent game-plan is likely to ever work in the high intensity of European warfare.

“If you get your basics right it gives you the platform, then it’s about being clinical,” he says. “All that is key. If you take your chances then maybe things will open up for you at the back end of the game as the other team has to chase.

“It showed against Glasgow,” he adds while praising the forward effort for nullifying the Warriors’ hopes for a fast-flowing game until the Scots found themselves having to throw all caution to the wind.

“Then when the game opened up we were able to pick up the scraps allowing Tommy Bowe to get in.”

Something similar could well be on the cards this week too with Ulster presumably aiming to dictate the game from their set-piece strength of scrum and lineout while possibly also trying to throw a few not often seen shapes should much ball be moved into wide areas.

“We’re wanting to hit the different level of intensity that Europe brings,” is all Doak will say.

“You build your foundation for the first hour, take stock and at the back end make sure you’re in the right areas and we’re not thinking about anything else other than the win.”

The head coach has spoken.


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