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Ulster's Neil Doak ready to emerge from shadows for top role

By Michael Sadlier

For those who buy into things always being choreographed for a reason, the appearance of Ulster assistant coach Neil Doak at last Friday night's post-match Press briefing gave them plenty of ammunition.

After all, this was pretty much the first time a member of Ulster's coaching staff had been officially put up for interview this season – though, actually, Doak had already done the PRO12 launch last month in London – during interim coach Les Kiss's time overseeing affairs.

Yes, and with it being made known that Kiss is about to hightail it back to Dublin next month, to get on with the rather pressing matter of plotting Ireland's season and on into next autumn's World Cup, and Ulster Rugby floating the idea that they will shortly announce just what shape the coaching structure to take them forward will be, it seemed even more meaningful that Doak was now being pushed out in front of the cameras and microphones.

Well, it still isn't clear cut, but the word is that this is Doak's time and if he is ever going to step up to the plate of being a head coach – even if it is for a short-term period of time – the 42-year-old former Ulster scrum-half will hardly be in a better position to give it a shot and do so presumably alongside existing coaches at the Kingspan Stadium Jonny Bell and Allen Clarke.

Coaching has been his lifeblood since retiring from the professional ranks back in 2005 and the then IRFU employee had a notably frustrating career when it came to national consideration, having benched for Ireland in 1995 against Fiji before being brought to Australia for the 2003 World Cup.

On both occasions, though, he was never given any game time and, therefore, remained tantalisingly uncapped.

Anyway, Doak certainly knows Ulster inside out having been initially employed as a high performance coach allowing him the space to learn his trade before becoming involved with the senior side since 2008 when elevated from then being the province's elite player development officer to work alongside then head coach Matt Williams.

Doak has stayed around and honed his skill and reputation as an attack coach whose plays have become central to Ulster's determination to give the ball width and play with accuracy and tempo.

He has worked with Brian McLaughlin and was also a mainstay alongside Mark Anscombe prior to the Kiwi's' swift removal over the summer.

Doak's credentials have also not gone unnoticed elsewhere and, nationally, he has been drafted in to coach with the Irish Wolfhounds and most recently Emerging Ireland while his being brought in to work alongside Kiss on the 2013 full Ireland tour of North America – in the period prior to Joe Schmidt taking full control – was considered a major endorsement of his talent.

He certainly has not tended to do high profile, but if you look hard enough you will find Doak's imprint on attacking moves and, significantly, in players' outlooks towards a man they respect.

He has become comfortable with media work over the last few seasons while, it is believed, his influence at Ulster training sessions has grown to the point where he is already a de facto head coach anyway.

Doak has also recently been prepared to speak of his desire to be an officially appointed head coach and has floated the notion that if not at Ulster then it could just as easily be elsewhere.

It has been rumoured that Anthony Foley was interested in hooking up with him again – Doak has worked with Foley for both the Wolfhounds and on that Ireland tour to North America in 2013 – as he prepared to take the reins at Munster this season but the Ulsterman chose, or was persuaded, to stay put.

Just as with Foley, though, the notion that he has earned the right to land the top job is difficult to ignore as is having another indigenous coach heading up an Irish province – which if Doak were to get the seal of approval would only leave Leinster and Connacht being fronted by overseas coaches.

Of course, Doak will be only too wary of the fate which has befallen previous homegrown coaches at Ulster with both Mark McCall and McLaughlin finding themselves effectively ousted.

Still, if the chance does come along, Doak knows that he really must take it.

So now we must wait and see if the man who has remained for so long in the background is about to step forward into the glare.

Belfast Telegraph

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