Of all the people who could have jolted 18-year-old Nathan Doak from his melancholy, it took Gary Neville and some televised prescience to do the trick.
The former Manchester United captain was excoriating the tame iteration of his old side on Sky Sports. His exasperation built as he bemoaned the talent languishing idle at Old Trafford, how nothing irks supporters quite like an exceptional youngster who does not realise their potential. For Doak, a United fanatic, sullen and unfulfilled, it felt like a giant spoonful of reality had just been forced down his gullet.
By early 2020, the half-back was beginning to feel he’d cracked professional rugby. He’d won a shedload of praise in Belfast as Wallace High’s golden boy. He had shifted from fly-half to scrum-half and brought his keen wit, slick handling and howitzer boot to bear with staggering efficiency. He was training with Ulster’s first team while still at school and the promise of a senior debut dangled tantalisingly close.
That’s a wee bit hypocritical of me because I’m sitting here feeling sorry for myself, I have the abilities some people would dream of and I’m not using them the best I can
Then Covid struck. Rugby was suspended indefinitely. Wallace High ended up sharing the Ulster Schools Cup because the final could not be staged. Doak’s opportunities withered and he found himself starved of matches.
“I didn’t play rugby at all, really, over that Covid year,” he says. “It was very tough. I didn’t really know what to do.
“It made me fall out of love with the game. When I was coming in to the Kingspan, it felt like work, if you know what I mean. I didn’t really enjoy it. I’ve never had that issue before.
“I was meant to make my debut, then I got appendicitis and I was going, ‘Jeez, this year can’t get any worse’. When I did get an opportunity and made my debut, I didn’t take it. I remember sitting down myself and thinking, if it keeps going like this, I’m not going to achieve what I want.”
Which is where Neville came in. An unintentional pep talk from the caustic pundit gave Doak the fuel to escape his malaise.
“I’m a huge Man United fan and when I was watching them, Gary Neville talked about the players not performing to their ability, and I felt how frustrating that was for me as a fan.
“I thought, that’s a wee bit hypocritical of me because I’m sitting here feeling sorry for myself, I have the abilities some people would dream of and I’m not using them the best I can. I felt how disappointing it would be, not for myself, but for my family and friends if I didn’t reach my full potential. That’s something I’ve got to try and do. It’s a huge driver for me; probably the biggest motivation.
“I was only 18; I probably did think I knew it all. Everything was going so well, things were working for me and I didn’t want to change. It was huge for me to actually have a setback. I’d never had one out of my control before.
“Skill-wise, talent-wise, I’ve always been there, but the way I’m going to take my game to the next level is by dealing with the pressure. I feel I have everything in terms of ability; the way I’ll be able to produce that ability is through mentality.”
I have the stuff people who have the physical capabilities would love to have. If I just work a wee bit harder, look after my body and be more disciplined, I could be one of the best
Now 20, Doak is a seriously impressive prospect. He only made scrum-half his primary position 18 months ago and at 6ft 1ins tall, does not possess the typical body shape of a fast-breaking nine. This, nonetheless, has been a fabulous breakthrough campaign. Seizing upon an opening-day injury to John Cooney, Doak seared to prominence, not content to take on the No 9 jersey, but the goal-kicking mantle too. He has all the tools to make it as a top-class half-back and several man-of-the-match awards to prove it. One by one, the giants of the past have lined up to throw bouquets at his feet.
Rory Best was “struck by the sheer physical size of him… You then see how smart a rugby player he is.”
The following came from Dan Tuohy: “You know he reminds me a bit of Ruan Pienaar in the way he goes about things, though obviously a ginger version.”
Here’s Andrew Trimble: “He has got the mindset. He certainly has the skillset. It’s hard not to get excited about him.”
Luke Fitzgerald was moved too: “This is a guy who looks like he’s made for the big stage.”
Though his rugby speaks for itself, Doak’s oratory compels too. He is unafraid to confront his flaws and vulnerabilities. He immerses himself in books and documentaries and the wisdom of those who have gone before. He cites Tom Brady, the totemic NFL quarterback, as a major influence.
“When I was younger, my physical capabilities weren’t that great,” Doak says. “I wasn’t very quick, wasn’t very strong, and it was kind of the same for him. He found a way to get through that and he’s looked after his body so well he’s been able to play nearly to 50.
“I have the stuff people who have the physical capabilities would love to have. If I just work a wee bit harder, look after my body and be more disciplined, I could be one of the best. I still am learning to do that. I struggle sometimes. If I see a ball, I just want to pick it up and start flinging it about. Hopefully as I get older and keep growing, I can take my physical capabilities up a bit more.”
Little wonder the urge to scoop up a rugby ball is innate. Doak has been steeped in the sport for as long as he can remember. His father, Neil, played over 70 times for Ulster and made Ireland’s World Cup squad in 2003. Doak Snr coached the province under Les Kiss and is back at the Kingspan after stints with Worcester Warriors and Georgia.
Belfast isn’t a huge place and we’ve got one team. I love the club and I’d love to see it win silverware. That’s what it deserves
As a kid, the young Doak was mascot at Ravenhill. He would hang out at training and worship the greats of the day. Ruan Pienaar, Tommy Bowe and Stephen Ferris were his idols; some became his friends. It is only now he sees the towering effect the elite can have on the aspiring.
“It felt normal for me to be in that environment. I realised when I got older how lucky and how different I was to have that opportunity. As a player now, looking at the impact you can have on young kids and fans – I’ve been there. I love giving back.
“I remember I did a speech for my school open day in second year. My dad was watching. I talked about how the school allows me to progress my dream of being a pro player for Ulster. My dad told me not so long ago they’d had a European game that night and when he was doing the team talk, he was telling them how lucky they are that he’d just sat and listened to his son tell him how he’d want to be one of them.
“The impact it has on so many kids throughout the country if this team wins big games. That not only struck my dad, but now being in that environment, I’m seeing it.”
On Saturday, the better part of a decade since his assembly hall speech, Doak has an intoxicating opportunity. Ulster are in sizzling form, edged in the Champions Cup by Antoine Dupont and Toulouse, comfortably second in the URC and dismembering Munster ruthlessly in their Kingspan quarter-final.
Now they have journeyed to Cape Town. The Stormers, by turns brutal and beautiful, stand between Ulster and the final. What’s more, win in the shadow of Table Mountain and as the highest-ranked side left standing, they would host the Bulls for the championship in their Kingspan stronghold. Doak is on the bench and his role in the last quarter will be pivotal. Ulster’s most recent showpiece outing came in 2012. Their last trophy? The old Celtic League 16 years ago.
“Belfast isn’t a huge place and we’ve got one team,” Doak goes on. “I love the club and I’d love to see it win silverware. That’s what it deserves. It needs silverware back. It would connect with fans and bring more people into the stadium.
“The players know each other so well on and off the pitch. It feels like playing with your mates. I’d say that’s why it works. We just click. It is massive, and it is an awesome thing.
“We know that our game will cause the Stormers problems – just by being ourselves.”
Whatever happens, Doak has made his mark on the professional game indelibly. A spot on Ireland’s July tour of New Zealand is not beyond him. The Covid-induced purgatory is a distant memory.
“Two years doesn’t seem like a lot of time but looking back at myself at 18, and looking at myself now, it’s a completely different shift in how I view things on and off the pitch.
“At this young age, I’m so lucky to get the experiences of playing pro games, playing in semi-finals. Hopefully when I’m 25 I’ll have had five years’ experience of that and be playing at a high standard ahead of the other guys who maybe haven’t had those experiences as early.
“If you’d told me this was the way my season would have gone at the start of the year, I’d have struggled to believe you.”
He can thank his precocious mindset – and the words of Gary Neville – for that.
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