Impressive Nathan Doak set for first competitive Ulster start

Attack coach Dan Soper praises ability and maturity of ‘exceptional’ 19-year-old

Nathan Doak scores a try after coming off the bench for Ulster in the opening United Rugby Championship match against Glasgow. Photograph: James Crombie/INPHO

Nathan Doak scores a try after coming off the bench for Ulster in the opening United Rugby Championship match against Glasgow. Photograph: James Crombie/INPHO

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Nathan Doak, one of the standout performers in the Irish Under-20 team, looks set to make his first competitive start for Ulster away to Zebre next Saturday and perhaps even have a run in the team.

This follows the strained hamstring which John Cooney sustained before the half-hour mark in last Friday’s entertaining 35-29 win against Glasgow at the Kingspan Stadium, and led to Doak’s introduction.

As was the case in his debut against Leinster at the RDS last May, Doak again looked mature beyond his years in just his third appearance for Ulster, scoring his first senior try and landing all three of his conversions.

Ulster are awaiting the outcome of an MRI scan on Cooney’s hamstring but he will be sidelined for Saturday’s URC game at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi. Attack coach Dan Soper admits that Ulster are unsure as to how long the 31-year-old will be absent, although Cooney himself is confident he’ll be back soon.

“John, being the eternal optimist, he’s being very positive about it,” claimed Soper. “To be honest, I’d be guessing [on a timescale]. I’m going off John’s expertise of knowing his own body and he’s pretty optimistic about it, but we’ll see what the scan says.”

Gifted

There is at least some comfort in having such a burgeoning talent and goal-kicking scrumhalf as Doak. Being the son of such a gifted sportsperson as Neil Doak, who played 76 times at scrumhalf for Ulster and 32 times for the Irish cricket team before establishing himself as a highly regarded coach, the 19-year-old is a chip off the old block.

His father, who is now coaching Belfast Harlequins after spells with Ulster, Worcester and Georgia, would probably happily admit that his son (at 6ft 1in he is 5in taller) is a stronger, quicker and potentially even better player.

I suppose it’s not just at a scrumhalf, in lots of positions players have unique super powers, if you like, that stand out for them

“He did exceptionally well, didn’t he,” said Soper of young Doak. “He played a lot longer than was planned obviously with John’s injury. The thing with Nathan is he’s only a young kid and he’s played very limited senior rugby since school, be it All-Ireland League, be it anything, because of the nature of the world we’ve been living in but he is actually a very old head on young shoulders.

“He has a calmness about him and he’s super competitive. Obviously the environment he grew up in at home with Neil, he has such a good understanding of the game. He has great potential. He is certainly by no means the finished article, he knows that, but he has a great attitude toward getting better.”

Cooney has arguably been Ulster’s most influential player in recent seasons as they play so much off 9, and as to how much a change at scrumhalf might influence Ulster, Soper said: “I suppose it’s not just at a scrumhalf, in lots of positions players have unique super powers, if you like, that stand out for them.

“We have a way of playing and our scrumhalves are able to play with that collective speed that we’re after and drive that. It’s not a case of doing ABC this week cause XYZ won’t work with this particular scrumhalf. But when you have particular players you really want to give them the chance to accentuate that super power.

“When John has played, we’re used to our nine kicking a lot because he’s a wonderful kicker. Maybe that changes other weeks. That’s similar to picking a hooker. Brad [Roberts] is explosive so you want to give him the opportunity to show that. We play in a certain way but we want to design ways for individuals to show those super powers.”

In any event, Soper takes the view that the mature Doak is good enough to start next Saturday and therefore old enough.

“If we didn’t think Nathan was capable of doing the job, we wouldn’t be picking him.

“Dan [McFarland] has driven the case for picking young players but we’d never put a player on the pitch if we didn’t think they could do the job that’s required at this level.”

Excellent kicker

Doak has cited the goal-kicking sessions with Cooney as particularly helpful, and Soper admitted: “He cost me six doughnuts last year cause those are the prizes I put on the line. I wasn’t surprised at all that he was kicking his goals because he’s an excellent kicker; really, really good.

He has the temperament for it. He keeps himself nice and calm and doesn’t get rattled by the occasion. His winning of the doughnuts is proof of that.

He thrives on competition, as the guys all do.

“You put something on the line when they guys come in on down days and we finish on a competition, whether it’s coffees or doughnuts, bragging rights or just having someone else pick up all the balls at the end of the session. They like to win and Nathan, for a young fella, has had his fair share of results.”

Rob Baloucoune has also been ruled out of Saturday’s game due to the groin injury, which forced him off the field before the hour mark last Friday. They join a casualty list of players currently unavailable for selection alongside Iain Henderson (thumb), Cormac Izuchukwu (knee), Luke Marshall (knee), Jack McGrath (hip), Kieran Treadwell (shoulder), Jordi Murphy and Ian Madigan.

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