Doak wants first-choice halves to make derby impression
Ulster's embattled head coach Neil Doak will be hoping for a couple of surprises under his tree tomorrow morning - confirmation that first-choice half-backs Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson are fit would sweeten his pudding.
Out-half Jackson trained lightly yesterday after missing several weeks with shoulder trouble, while scrum-half Pienaar also tested himself after limping off in the equally limp defeat against the Ospreys.
"Paddy might be in the mix and Ruan is in a similar position," said Doak (right) as his Springbok star gingerly assessed his latest injury travails.
"It would be great to have him available, for his kicking game alone. But, look, other teams have the same problems we have, injuries are part of the game, especially at the professional level and you ride the waves of form, and of injuries."
Ireland team protocols also deny Doak the services of hooker Rory Best and winger Tommy Bowe but again the coach had no complaints.
"We know what these protocols are, we know that they work, and the fact that so many other countries are emulating the Ireland model shows that resting players from club action benefits the national side," he said.
"It means, combined with injuries, that perhaps we're asking a lot of players to play a little more than we would have liked. But they don't complain, they are all responding well in training and the focus on Connacht is total."
Doak regards Connacht as a real threat this weekend despite their reverse against Leinster last week, which ended a four-game winning streak.
"They have some really talented players, and so many of the Irish guys have been well-coached by Pat Lam, who has done a super job," he said.
"It's an interprovincial, it's a chance for the Irish boys on both sides to catch Joe Schmidt's eye with the Six Nations in sight."
Doak accepts that a win over Connacht, followed by another at the RDS against Leinster a week later, could have nothing but a positive effect psychologically.
"Connacht are in great form at the moment. We've looked at them closely and we know what to expect," he said.