Nathan Doak displays maturity by grasping his Ulster opportunity with both hands

Young scrumhalf steps up to the mark with mature displays in Cooney’s absence

There was something about Nathan Doak’s performances for the Irish Under-20s this year, and those first two cameos off the bench against Munster and Leinster last season, which oozed a maturity beyond his 19 years.

It wasn’t just his clear talent. There was also the knowledge that as his father Neil, a talented scrumhalf in his own right, is also a highly regarded coach, Doak would have had a rugby upbringing and the best of additional one-on-one coaching.

So when John Cooney’s misfortune in tweaking his hamstring half an hour into Ulster’s first game of the season offered him an opportunity, it’s not that surprising that Doak has taken to senior provincial rugby so seamlessly.

A chip off the old block, although taller, stronger and quicker, as an innate footballer who can goal-kick and also play '10', Doak has a hint of Conor Murray about him or, as Andrew Trimble nicknamed him on commentary, The Ginger Pienaar.

"Trimby sounds like he's hit it on the head as he can do," chuckled defence coach Jared Payne. "He's got a lot of strengths, he's got a great kick, he's taller and there's a nice flow to his game, similar to Ruan's.

"Ruan had a very good feel for the game, Nathan's got that as well. There are similarities, I guess, but Nathan is his own man. He's got a few other bits and pieces, things that are different to Ru'. He's going to definitely find his own way. He's not going to be the next Ruan Pienaar, he's going to be Nathan Doak. Hopefully a very good version of that."

While Kieran Treadwell, Rob Lyttle, Eric O’Sullivan, Robert Baloucoune and David O’Connor are back in training ahead of Friday’s URC game against the Lions at the Kingspan Stadium (kick-off 7.35pm), Cooney will be one of those obliged to watch Doak from the sidelines again.

Of course Doak is not the finished article. Payne talks of his positional play and constantly sharpening his skill set. Yet Doak has scored three tries and kicked an additional 16 points in his first 2½ outings, making him the new darling of the Kingspan, and even Payne has been taken aback by Doak’s precocious start.

“He was floating around a bit last year with us. He was decent at training but I couldn’t have picked that he has done as well as he has. He’s got a great feel for the game and that’s probably come from his old man.

“He’s been around rugby a lot growing up so he naturally makes good decisions, and he’s got some pretty tremendous athletic ability to back that up in terms of his kicking game, and I think he’s a lot quicker than people give him credit for. He covers the ground pretty well.

“But I think he’s got a lot more in him, which is going to be good. He’s a good kid and he wants to learn too, so the sky is the limit for him at the moment, which is good to see.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times

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