Thursday 19 April 2018

Doak hopes Ulster squad can stand up to injuries and international call-ups

Ulster head coach Neil Doak. Photo: John Dickson/Sportsfile
Ulster head coach Neil Doak. Photo: John Dickson/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The news that Iain Henderson will miss the rest of the season didn't come as much of a surprise, but it did serve as a reminder that Ulster are dealing with a weakened hand despite their recent resurgence.

Munster put a stop to their winning run last Saturday, yet there was a sense leaving the Kingspan Stadium that the northern province had left a result behind them. Paddy Jackson missed two kicks to win the game, while they coughed up ball frequently on visits to their rivals' territory.

This week, the focus turns to Europe and the refixed visit to Oyonnax. Back in November, Les Kiss and his men made their way to the small town near the Swiss border, only for the match to be called off due to the attacks on Paris the night before.

This is take two, a return to one of the Top 14's more feared venues, albeit one that's had its sting removed since they installed a 4G synthetic pitch.

With Henderson, Tommy Bowe, Darren Cave, Stuart Olding and Jared Payne on the long-term injury list, Ulster's resources are being tested, yet they produced back-to-back wins over Toulouse before Christmas with a similar squad.

"We'll recover as best we can," head coach Neil Doak said. "It's a long season, and we've played a lot of rugby so far. This game, when it was originally called off, threw a bit of a spanner in the works with regards to planning and selections and player management to keep players fresh and fit.

"We've obviously picked up a few bumps and bruises along the way and that puts a bit stress on us. The guys had a day or two off this week and then it's back into focusing on the game at the weekend. After that, we will take stock after Sunday's game and then move onto the Saracens trip.

"Overall, I think the players are more than capable of coping with that. The change of date has caused a few issues, but at this stage of the season, even though we have played a lot of rugby, there is still a lot more to play, and with that in mind, we have to manage our players well.

"There is a Six Nations squad being announced and there will be guys hopefully moving in to that as well.

"So the management team have to shape things a little bit for if you lose the regular guys, there are other players who will have to be there as back-up in a lot of games. So for us it is a bit of a balancing act where you are trying to keep most of your squad as fresh mentally and physically as they can be."

Forwards coach Allen Clarke is hopeful the men in white can bounce back from their error-strewn performance last weekend.

"To put into context, there was a great opportunity for us to put ourselves into a really good position in the league. We are still in a reasonably good position, and within reach of the top four at present," he said.

"But when you look at the game against Munster itself, we just made too many unforced and uncharacteristic errors. We had good field position at times in the first half, but did not retain possession and coughed it up all too easily.

"Oyonnax are similar to many French teams in that they have got a huge pack that will take you on up front. From our analysis, they are a team that will compete in every aspect of play, scrum, line-out, breakdown and they are not afraid to run the ball from deep and pound you around the edges.

"For us, we need to be focused on our own detail, be organised and when any opportunities arise we need to look after the ball."

A win in Oyonnax would set the northern province up for a tilt at the quarter-finals, but they'll need improvements before their daunting trip to Saracens on Saturday week.

Irish Independent

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