Neil Doak was putting a brave face on things on Thursday as he reflected on a season which should have been finishing with Ulster facing Munster in Saturday’s Guinness PRO12 final.
Ulster saw another opportunity of success and potential silverware snatched from their grasp when they lost last week’s PRO12 semi-final 16-14 against Glasgow Warriors.
Last night Doak watched several Ulster players in the green shirt at Thomond Park, home of Munster. It was somewhat ironic that Munster players who are playing in the home of Ulster Rugby, The Kingspan Stadium tomorrow.
Ulster had travelled to Scotstoun with strength, confidence and a certain degree of optimism. For 72 minutes they had controlled the game for the most and were leading 14-9.
Three minutes later Glasgow outhalf Finn Russell was converting DTH van der Merwe’s try from the touchline to secure a win and leave Ulster heartbroken.
It sort of reflected how Ulster’s season - frustrating.
While some players have had the focus of last night’s game for Ireland and others are preparing to head to Georgia for the Tbliski Cup with Emerging Ireland, Doak and the other members of the squad have been getting through what has been a long, long final week of the season in Belfast.
The hurt of last week’s defeat is still there as Doak goes over things which happened in the match.
Inevitably it is all about small margins and things which are outside Ulster’s control.
“We have been on the wrong side of some decisions this year.” said Doak. “There were a few last week against us which we are still annoyed about.
“There are a lot of things which go into winning something, but I still think teams need a little bit of luck along the way too and we have not had a lot of that this season.”
Doak will not be watching tomorrow’s final instead he can go and watch his sons play Under-11 and Under-13 cricket in the NCU competitions in the morning, he might pace a boundary at a club game in the afternoon and on Sunday he has the option of going to the Irish Open golf in Newcastle.
Earlier this week Ulster scrumhalf, Ruan Pienaar, said it was time the club started to win things.
The South African has appeared in a European Cup Final, a PRO12 final and now two losing semi-finals.
But Doak believes it is not always about learning but managing things better by the players.
“Of course you can learn, I think everyone does learn. But it is about dealing with high level games and the players handling the pressure better.” said Doak.
“It is about learning to do things a little bit better.”
At the start of the current season many had written Ulster off as non contenders in Europe and domestically.
Certainly the Euro draw presented a tough challenge with eventual winners Toulon, Leicester and Scarlets in the group.
Their exit from the competition came as no major surprise, but a shock defeat to Zebre in Italy in the PRO12 early on was concerning.
However, Ulster never dropped out of the top six or contention throughout the season, indeed they were unbeaten at home.
Doak had been put into the head coach’s role after a summer of turmoil which saw director of rugby, David Humphreys depart and then coach, Mark Anscombe, was ‘moved on.’
The injury profile was horrendous at times - there was one stage in the season where Ulster were barely able to get 23 squad members out for a European Cup game.
But there were high points. Ulster came through the Six Nations period strongly, something which they had not done.
And that effectively ensured that they were going into the last couple of weekends still firmly in the mix for a place in the play-offs.
“There are a lot of positives we can take from the season even if did not finish the way we wanted,” said Doak. “We came through some tough times and it challenged everyone in the organisation. I think both us on the management side and the players will be better for it going forwards.”
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