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13th Apr 2022

“Why not? I’m not doing anything else” – The conversation that changed Nathan Doak’s rugby career

Patrick McCarry

Nathan Doak

 “What’s my potential? What can I get to? That’s what I’m fighting against.”

It is saying something about how well Nathan Doak carries himself that, since we sat down for a chat in Belfast, on Monday afternoon, I have been telling anyone who will listen all about him.

Two days out from Ulster’s 26-20 victory over Toulouse, at a throbbing Stade Ernest-Wallon, Doak is back home and has given up a chunk of his afternoon to meet up for a natter.

Over the course of the next 90 minutes, Doak gives his considered, engaging, honest thoughts on a whole manner of issues – switching from outhalf to scrumhalf, Ireland hopes, following in his father’s footsteps, NFL, the form of Marcus Rashford, Rory McIlroy’s Masters Sunday charge and what makes Antoine Dupont so great.

Before we sweep back to his days as ‘Neil’s young lad’ at Ulster, trading football for rugby, Wallace High School and his breakthrough with the senior Ulster squad, we cover some more recent history. Doak was part of the Ireland U20s in 2021 and formed a friendship with Munster back-row Alex Kendellen.

Ahead of last weekend’s Champions Cup games – Doak named on the bench for the Toulouse game and Kendellen starting against Exeter – the pair exchanged messages – ‘Can you believe we’re both playing in Europe this weekend?’ ‘I know. Mad, isn’t it?’

Doak has 21 appearances for Ulster, so far, with 12 of them being in the No.9 jersey. He deputised superbly for John Cooney, earlier this season, but was back on the bench for that pulsating game against reigning European champions Toulouse.

The 20-year-old came on for the final 10 minutes, as Toulouse – trailing by 13 – went for broke and started running it from everywhere. His first impressions of Dupont?

“I actually thought he was going to be bigger. I remember going, ‘Jeez, how is this guy breaking so many tackles?’ He’s not as big as you’d think but he’s in very good nick, to be fair to him.

“I was just watching him, to see how he’d go and, probably the biggest compliment I can give him is he has so much confidence at the minute. Everything he is doing is just so instinctive to him. That’s something that I find I’d like to be able to do.

“Maybe some things don’t go your way in a game – like you hit a box-kick too long, throw a poor pass. As a younger player, it’s so easy to think, ‘Right, I better just do enough to get by’. But he chucked that intercept for Rob Baloucoune’s try. Two minutes later, he’s picking it up and chucking it out the back doors. I know, fine rightly, that if I chuck an intercept and someone is calling for that [pass], I’d be like, ‘No, forget about it!’

Credit: Direct 2 (via YouTube)

‘All I ever wanted to do was play for Ulster’

Neil Doak played over 70 times for Ulster and was part of Ireland’s squad for the 2003 World Cup. He also represented Ireland at cricket, while his mother was a distance runner.

The former Ulster scrumhalf was then in for almost a decade as backs and attack coach at the province, before moving on to Worcester Warriors. Both Nathan and his younger brother Cameron grew up and around an Ulster squad that contained the legendary likes of Tommy Bowe, Ruan Pienaar, Rory Best, Stephen Ferris, Johann Müller, Andrew Trimble and more.

Growing up, though, Nathan Doak excelled at football and cross-country running. “I started off playing centre back but, as I got older, I loved up in centre midfield. When I play with mates now, I like to think of myself as a striker… I love to still head down to the park with my mates and play headers and volleys. Take a few free kicks.”

The running was shelved when he headed along to Wallace High School, with whom his father helped to the Ulster Schools Cup Final in 1989. He stuck with football for the first two years, but there was no real decision to be made:

“I always thought, growing up, about those big ties my dad with rugby. I knew, no matter how good I was at the football, I always wanted to play rugby. Being a wee kid, I always wanted to be like my dad. I wish I wasn’t like that – maybe I’d get paid a little more! I always wanted to say I played for Ulster.”

Doak established his outhalf credentials and was part of a Wallace team that was hoping it would be sixth time lucky in the Ulster Schools Cup when the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. They ended up sharing the trophy with The Royal School, Armagh.

The Schools Cup is often the end of the road for many young rugby players, but a lot of that Wallace team have stepped up to Ulster’s academy set-up, including Ben Carson and this season’s Ireland U20 captain Reuben Crothers. Scott Wilson, another Wallace player, was also part of that Ireland U20 team. Younger brother Cameron Doak, a talented cricketer, is getting a taste of the Ulster Rugby set-up, too.

He started to turn heads in the 10 jersey for Wallace, but Nathan Doak got his big break at scrumhalf and instantly grasped it.

“First time I got selected at scrumhalf was when I started getting called in for Ulster, their Under-18s. The guy who was supposed to be their scrumhalf was playing up a year, with the 19s. In pre-season, the 18s didn’t have a scrumhalf, so Kieran Campbell got in touch with my dad and asked if I’d be interested playing there.

“I was like, ‘Why not? I’m not doing anything else’. I went in, played scrumhalf and ended up starting over the guy that was playing 19s. I couldn’t believe it. That was my introduction to scrumhalf. I went back to school, played outhalf again. I only started playing scrumhalf regularly when I signed for the academy. I had played a bit of centre at school, too… badly, but I was in there!”

“I’m definitely still learning,” he adds. “I wouldn’t say that I’m fully converted yet. There’s still a wee bit of outhalf in me.”

Being able to slot back into the outhalf position is something that could be a unique selling point for Doak in the coming years, though. During Ulster’s two-game trip to South Africa, he played 10 while Cooney stayed at scrumhalf, and he landed some length goal-kicks on the Highveld.

Nathan Doak makes a clearing kick for Ulster during the under 18 schools interprovincial match against Leinster, in September 2017. (Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile)

Breakthrough for Ulster

Even when he was called into the Ulster academy set-up, and as a scrumhalf as opposed to a No.10, Neil Doak – a guy with vast experience in the 9 jersey – was not pushing his knowledge on Nathan.

“He always said to me that he wants me to drive my career. He can’t do it for me. I’d go to him and have conversations that way. If he sees something, he might say, ‘Try it that way’ or ‘Try that out’, but he wouldn’t be driving it. He’d say to me, you come to me if you want, if you think I can help. It’s your own career.”

Neil is back involved with Ulster now, but Nathan had that chance to first establish himself at the club before he was back in and around the training pitches. Doak made his debut at the age of 19 in a couple of Rainbow Cup sub appearances.

He would have hoped to slowly build on that in 2021/22, but the current season has been beyond whatever he would have jotted out for himself. So far this season he has 19 senior appearances, 12 starts, including two in Europe, four tries, 119 points and a couple of Man of the Match performances.

He is part of a youthful injection into the Ulster set-up that includes Ethan McIlroy, Aaron Sexton, Mike Lowry, James Hume, Robert Balouncoune, Stewart Moore and Ben Moxham. They may all be backs, but Ulster did have seven forwards that were part of Ireland’s latest U20 Grand Slam-winning squad.

As a recently converted scrumhalf, learning his trade, Doak says Conor Murray [6-foot-2] has been the obvious study, but he has also been looking closely at smaller, nippier 9s like Dupont, Jamison Gibson Park, Aaron Smith and more.

“When I look at my game now, I’ve probably picked up so much stuff from John, to be honest, without even knowing it. Having such a good relationship with him and Dave Shanahan, the other scrumhalf, has really helped me.

“He’s probably the best passer at the club. John is obviously a very good kicker. So I’d be looking at Dave – how he is passing, what positions he is getting to – and see how John is kicking. Trying to get that balance back, of what works best for me.”

Nathan Doak of Ulster makes a break during the Heineken Champions Cup match against Northampton Saints, at Franklin’s Gardens. (Photo by Paul Harding/Sportsfile)

Ireland hopes and outside perceptions

Off the back of fine performances, in wins over Northampton and Clermont, and home wins over the likes of Glasgow and Scarlets, some were tipping Nathan Doak as an outside bet to make Ireland’s Six Nations squad.

In the end, Andy Farrell went for Conor Murray, Craig Casey and Jamison Gibson Park. Only Connacht back-row Cian Prendergast was called is as a ‘development player’. Doak might have received a similar invite in other years but Covid postponements meant clubs were busier over February and March so the IRFU was not going to drain squads more than was necessary.

For Doak, he is not sweating Ireland talk yet.

“There was nothing from Ireland, at the time,” he says. “It was just me talking to Dan [McFarland] about how I can get better.

“That sort of stuff – selection with Ulster and Ireland – is, like, nothing I can control. It’s about how I can get better so, when that does come around, I’m in a better position than I am now.

“I’m quite calm like that. Growing up, I always would have had the attitude of controlling what I could control. Someone said to me, and I don’t know who it was, that you’re getting picked on a perception of who you are, from one guy. One guy might pick you and the other guy might not. It’s a perception of what other people think of you.

“What I like to do is go, ‘Well, what’s the perception I have of me? What are my standards?’ And if I drop below those standards, I know I have to find my way back up there. ‘What’s my potential? What can I get to?’ That’s what I’m fighting against.”

Nathan Doak pictured during the United Rugby Championship match between Ulster and Benetton, at Kingspan Stadium. (Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile)

Taking lessons from Rory McIlroy… and Gary Neville

The US Masters is fresh in the memory as we both have our Monday chat, as is the -8 par Sunday run Rory McIlroy went on to give himself an outside shot of the green jacket.

Something McIlroy, a big Ulster Rugby fan, said after his final round of 64 has stuck with Nathan Doak.

“It was class,” Doak reflects. “What did he say? It was the most fun he’d had on the golf course in a long time.

“When I heard that, I was thinking, ‘That’s what I want, every time I go to work’. I just want to enjoy it. Enjoy what I do, whether it is on or off the pitch. And if you don’t enjoy it, then it feels like work. In Rory’s case, he probably hasn’t been enjoying his golf. Showing up thinking he’s not going to win… but he is now maybe going to show up at the next tournament like, ‘This is a hobby. I was just being myself, I was going out playing my golf and I know how good I am. So just enjoy it’.”

We move from golf to NFL, and he tells me of his love for the New England Patriots, borne out of getting gear sent over from relatives living in Boston and, when he was younger, trips to the USA.

One of his favourite days at Ulster has been when the squad holds a ‘Draft Day’ and make their selections for the upcoming NFL season. Dan McFarland is a big driver of the practice as he, like Doak, loves American Football.

Switching to football and Doak reflects on something that former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville said on one of his Sky Sports outings.

“I heard Gary Neville say, recently, the most annoying thing for fans, pundits, or people watching on, is seeing a player that never reaches his potential.

“I’m a massive Man United fan and looking at Marcus Rashford and these other guys that you thought could have been superstars, and aren’t quite getting there, I find it so annoying. So, for Ulster fans, if I’m perceived as having quite a lot of potential, and coaches see potential in me, I want to fulfil that. That’s my drive.

“Getting to play against Antoine Dupont at the weekend, and watching him, I was thinking, ‘Well, he’s five or six years ahead of me. How close can I get to him? And I’ve got five or six years to do it.’

“So I’m not thinking too much about squads, selections or anything like that. It is obviously a massive privilege and honour to get picked for Ireland, and for Ulster. I’m in a good competition with John there for a starting spot. I have enough competition on my hands.

“That’s how I would take my focus away from that selection stuff… I’m looking to have that control over what I can do, looking at Dupont and wondering how close I can get to him in five years’ time. They are the targets I’m setting for myself.”

“Last week,” he notes, “when I was talking to Dan, it was something he spoke about. Not focusing on getting that starting spot for Ulster but asking yourself, ‘Can I be the best in the world?’ That’s something I agreed with him on. ‘That’s how I’m thinking’.”

He sits, sipping on a coffee, and chatting amiably until, feeling guilty [and having promised Darren Cave I would swing by his coffee shop] I let him get on with the rest of his day.

He is so keen to talk rugby, though, that we spend another 10 minutes looking ahead to Saturday’s visit of Toulouse to Belfast.

“It’s been years since we’ve had a big knock-out European tie at Kingspan,” he says. “It should be a cracker.”

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