Ask anyone who has worked with Neil Doak and they will tell you the same thing: he is a top-quality coach.
Indeed, a certain generation of Ulster fans will remember him only as the coach who transformed Ulster into one of the most potent attacking sides in Europe. He was a key part of the coaching team that helped to steer Ulster to the Heineken Cup final in 2012 and, upon becoming Head Coach of Ulster in 2014, lead them to consecutive Pro 12 semi-finals in the 2014/15 and 2015/16 seasons.
‘Drive’ is an all-too-common sporting cliché, but is typified by Doak’s relentless determination to prove the doubters wrong.
A talented all-round sportsman, came desperately close to being Ireland’s first cricket and rugby dual international, representing Ireland at cricket 32 times.
In 1995 he sat on the bench for Ireland against Fiji and was the unused third scrumhalf in the 2003 World Cup. In between times, Doak was injured for five seasons, from 1996 to 2001, with a broken leg and broken ankle. His journey back into the game is nothing short of remarkable.
A second chance to play for Ulster came for Doak under then head-coach, Alan Solomons, winning 85 caps for the province before retiring in 2005 to pursue his coaching career.
Coaching was nothing new for Doak, having landed his first coaching job as a development officer with the IRFU in 1994. He’s been coaching in some shape of form ever since.
Here, Doak discusses his fascinating journey, passion for sport and his desire to help young player realise their ambitions of playing professional rugby and reach their full potential.
Who or what made you passionate about rugby?
Actually, at school I didn’t play rugby that regularly – I mainly played football.
I played at quite a good level and was really into it. A mate of mine called Neil Masters and I played for Lisburn Youth together throughout school. He eventually signed for Harry Redknapp at Bournemouth and went on to play for Wolves in the Premiership. I eventually went in a different sporting direction!
I played football regularly up until I was about 16, although from a young age I had played a range of sports. At Wallace my rugby coach was Brian McLoughlin and I got into rugby along with all the other sports I was playing. I floated about a number of different positions. My first position was prop then it was only later in school that I moved into the backs. In fact, at the early part of Medallion I played hooker then I played out-half in the Medallion Shield.
I played so much sport growing up. A lot of cricket, football, golf and tennis so I was very fortunate that I had a reasonable range of skills to use in a lot of sports. I suppose it was only the senior part of school that I stopped playing football because I would have played both as much as possible – rugby in the mornings, football in the afternoons. Then I started playing scrum half and out half in the senior part of school when I was at Wallace and started to take rugby more seriously.
Was there a time that you knew “I have a real chance at this”, or maybe it didn’t cross your mind?
Well, I didn’t get picked for any Ulster Schools teams or anything like that.
Actually, the first game I played for a representative side was straight out of school, playing for Ulster. So, I played for an Ulster team in a pre-season game at Deramore against either an IRFU President’s XV or an Ulster branch President’s XV. Niall Malone and I were the two out-halves selected for that Ulster senior squad.
I left school in June and played for Ulster in August. I’d just turned 18 and then 6 months later I was away to South Africa to live and did some coaching out there. I played a few games of senior rugby then I didn’t play rugby for 4 years!
So, Cricket took over?
Yes, I was playing international cricket for Ireland, I played a little bit of club rugby and stuff but had the Cricket World Cup 1994 with Ireland in Kenya then I went to another World Cup after that in Malaysia. I was to-ing and fro-ing between both sports.
I lived in South Africa for a couple of years where I was coaching and I came back to Northern Ireland in ‘94 and I was lucky enough to get a job with the IRFU as development officer then from 1994 onwards. I was trying to juggle both sports.
I played Ireland 7’s in 1995, got back in the Ulster squad sort of ‘95 when I came back from South Africa and played for them later in ‘95. I got injured playing rugby. I was able to still play a bit of cricket, but I wasn’t able to play rugby. I had 3 operations on my ankle, and I was thinking of packing in rugby.
My next game for Ulster was 2001 because in that period I had 3 operations and after that I went to play for Ballymena for a year to see if I could get back into it again. That was the year of foot and mouth so there was no international rugby and Ulster couldn’t travel outside Ireland, so everything was local. I played for Ballymena that year and got Player of the Year, I was selected for the All Ireland league team of the year as scrum half.
Alan Solomans came into coach Ulster the next year. At that stage I was in South Africa coaching rugby again. Alan phoned me and said ‘look, I want you to come and train with the senior squad’. That first year back into the provincial set up, I was rugby training in the morning and then I was leaving to go and do my job as the development officer. Then Alan picked me and my first game back for about 5 years was against Leinster down in Dublin. It was 14th September 2001 and I played the next 55 games for Ulster under Alan Solomans.
It was straight in the deep end! It’s interesting that you got started in the era of amateurism but then professionalism had come in when you came back to the sport. To go back into a professional set-up, how different was that and was it a shock to the system?
No, not really. I suppose I was quite fortunate I was working within the IRFU. I’d played international cricket, I knew what it took to manage my time and I knew I suppose what you needed to do as an athlete to play an international sport and the work that needed to go into that.
I didn’t get my first professional contract until I was 29 so I’m very thankful to the IRFU because they gave me a sabbatical to play professional rugby for Ulster, so I played sort of 4 or 5 years for Ulster.
Whenever I was the development officer, I looked after what was called the Ulster Rugby Foundation which basically was the forerunner for what is now the academy. It wasn’t the same set-up they have now. I looked after the age grade teams: 16’s, 17’s 18’s and 20’s. Whenever I retired in 2005, Gary Longwell and myself were tasked with looking after the academy and looking after that performance pathway.
I’m interested to know a bit more about your thoughts on bringing players through the system at Ulster. Seemingly, Leinster have a conveyor belt of top-class players coming through. Historically, Ulster has had a player retention problem after school level, a lot of people quit the game or go off to university elsewhere. Is there anything you think could be done to retain players better? How do we compete with Leinster?
Northern Ireland is a small place. You get a lot of students who want to travel, want to see the world, want to go and study away from home to get their independence. The drain of rugby players out of the country is huge. I don’t know what the figures are but you’re talking potentially 75% of students leave the country. So that’s always going to be an issue.
The pressure is on teachers now to develop talent. In the past we were very fortunate, I’ve worked with Keith Patton, Barney McGonigle, Brian McLaughlin and others. There were a lot of teachers whenever I was coming through school who would give up their time for rugby. They weren’t paid for it and Ulster rugby were indebted to the hours those guys put in on top of their normal jobs and it was the passion they had for rugby within Ulster – that’s why they did it.
Now, like every job in life, the time constraints on people and families and so forth, life is just so quick now. Especially in schools, the processes and extra-work teachers have to go through now, the time that it takes just to teach – after-school activities become secondary. There are only certain schools that have a really good culture: schools where a lot of the teachers still do give up their time to, not just to look after rugby, but to look after various sports in their school curriculum.
You mentioned Brian McLoughlin was your coach at school. Any other big influences on your life from a rugby perspective or sports people growing up?
When I left school, I didn’t actually know a lot about rugby within Ulster. I played a lot of sports and I suppose I started playing 1st XI cricket when I was 13 for Lisburn. While I was at school, sort of 15, 16 ,17, 18 I was playing first 11 cricket regularly so rugby in Ulster wasn’t my focus at that stage to be honest!
Would you have followed Ulster and Ireland or was that happening in the background?
It was a bit in the background if I’m honest. As I said, I was playing football and cricket and rugby was just another sport I was interested in, but not my main interest by any means.
Brian Robinson was a development officer at the time when I was leaving school, I did some coaching qualifications with him. I went to South Africa and I got paid to coach cricket, I didn’t play any rugby out there. Through Brian Robinson I got into coaching some mini rugby and youth level.
That last year at school I probably kicked off my interest in coaching. Originally, I was more cricket orientated and was coaching in schools and clubs and stuff.
When I got back from South Africa, I was fortunate enough to get a post with the IRFU as a development officer and it went on from there. I think the biggest thing for me is, I’m quite lucky and as you’ve said I’ve gone through the amateur period and into the professional game. I’ve never once taken my good fortune in that for granted. I appreciate how lucky I am to earn a living out of something I love.
Being a coach, is that something that comes naturally? Do you enjoy taking the leadership role?
Yes, I love the coaching side of things and I think it’s a role that suits me. In terms of leadership, I wasn’t captain very much in my career – I’ve only been captain of a couple of teams – but I have always been very driven and think I know what to do to get the best out of people as a coach.
That drive is something that has helped me, both as a player and as a coach. Even that early period of playing international cricket and playing rugby for Ulster, I would have trained on a Thursday night, left rugby at 8.30pm and started cricket at 9 until 11pm with indoor nets at Queens with the rest of the international squad who were based in Belfast.
I had a drive and I enjoy trying to instil that drive and work-ethic in other people. I really enjoy the process of seeing a young player develop over the years. As I said, I’ve been quite fortunate in all I’ve wanted to do. If players I coach can have the same opportunities I’ve had, and I can help a little bit to enable them to fulfil dreams they have then that’s great. Just seeing that process of them growing up and getting better and seeing the stuff that you work on happening on the pitch whether it be cricket or whether it be in rugby, that satisfaction of being involved in their journey is something that I enjoy.
What drives you? Obviously, there are lots of sacrifices you have to make to be a professional athlete and coach?
When I look back, I suppose when I left school and went to live in South Africa. Looking back I was really young and I was going out there to live and coach. I suppose that’s the biggest sacrifice, there are guys I would have spent every day with for 7 years, they’ve gone on, some to university, some into work. You wouldn’t have seen them that regularly and it was sporadic in terms of being able to keep in touch.
Listen, in professional sport there’s massive sacrifices nowadays. There are kids being signed up for football teams at 9-year olds or even younger. My mate who went to Bournemouth – he left Northern Ireland when he was 15. You see gymnasts who are competing in the Olympics at 13 and the sacrifices they have to make. To get to any top-level sport there’s always going to be sacrifices.
Is that drive to excel at sport built in or did you have a very sporty family? Did your parents encourage you in terms of pursuing a career in sport?
Like most kids, you’re indebted to your parents. They’ve given me numerous opportunities, they supported me massively. As an 18-year-old kid to travel to South Africa and live there not knowing anybody there – it’s tough. Maybe I do get that from my dad, he travelled with his work.
I suppose I just love sport. Whether it be tennis, cricket, football or golf – I’ve tried my hand at anything and everything. I just love that team environment. I played for the Ireland cricket team that won the European championships for the first time in Denmark, as a team team we had unbelievable craic.
That’s the biggest thing probably through your other interviews with some of the past players, what they miss is going in and having that camaraderie in the changing room then all of a sudden it’s done. It is a scary transition. I suppose even though I retired I still played a bit of club rugby 4 or 5 years after that and I’m still working in that environment, just not as a player, so I didn’t lose that as much as some of the other guys who have gone into business and so on. I’m massively fortunate to still have that environment, that camaraderie.
What are the worst things about being a professional player?
I suppose injuries. The game has become pretty volatile. No matter what you do, you can’t control certain outcomes. Teams may decide that budgets are cut, and a player becomes surplus to requirements.
Even when someone is playing playing quite well, they may become surplus now that maybe they’ve got a couple of younger players who are slightly cheaper versions. A lot of the game now, you’ll find the top end players are well looked after. If you look at the profile of Ulster, for quite a number of years, that middle aged 25-30 player, there wasn’t a lot of them about. The age profile of teams has changed over a while. Injury is the biggest thing and it enables guys who are younger to come through and compete for places. I know how bad injuries can be – I’d 3 operations and 4 or 5 years between caps! Professional sport is a ruthless environment and there is a lot of pressure on players to keep their place in the team.
As a professional rugby player, I was pretty fortunate that I got another opportunity later down the line with Solly and Ulster and I had to try and make sure I took it with both hands. Like every sport there comes a time where your body tells you you’ve got to finish, or other circumstances can dictate that as well.
How did you decide it was your time to retire?
I suppose I felt I had a little bit left in me which is probably a good time to call it a day. There was an opportunity to look after the academy and go into coaching again. I feel like I’ve coached and played forever. Even through 1995-2000 I coached Lisburn Rugby Club then from 2000-2015 I coached Queens on top of my other work on the quiet because I used to take coaching courses. I’ve always wanted to get practical experience and have coached in some shape or form from an early stage.
It’s a bit like university or doing a degree when you do the coaching qualifications but you’ve actually no practical experience. It takes you probably another 18 to 24 months to get that practical experience so you can do coaching courses, but you actually only learn on the job.
I was quite fortunate, I was coaching junior rugby and gradually filtered in to senior roles. Then in 2006, 2007 I got an opportunity to go and work for the senior squad as a skills coach and then from there to Head Coach of Ulster. So again, I have worked hard at what I do and yes, I’ve been quite fortunate but I’ve tried to make sure that when opportunities arise, I’ve been ready to take them and try and run with them as much as I can.
Do you still follow Ulster? Are you a fan?
I still watch the games. I still speak to some of the guys, some of whom have now moved on from playing for Ulster. I worked for Ulster rugby for 25 years. Paul Marshall for example, I coached him for 15 years, you know what I mean. Paul, whenever he got his first professional contract, got in touch with me to say thanks for helping him fulfil his ambitions. I really appreciated that. I’d worked with him at Methody and through the academy and stuff. It’s great when you are part of bringing guys like that through and can help them fulfil their goal of playing for Ulster.
To get those small thanks from a player is massively rewarding because that’s all I’ve tried to do – help players reach their potential and fulfil their goals. One of the reasons why I coached at Queens was because I felt that the pressure on teachers in school is so great that the game started to move away from the work that they could do – often teachers just don’t have the time or resources.
I feel that Ulster rugby have obviously grown the academy and some really good players have come through. The difference between Leinster and Ulster is there are 16 directors of rugby in Leinster at schoolboy level and there’s 3 in Ulster. They’ve also got more numbers and professional coaches within the school’s system down there which is more than in Ulster and I do think that is one factor in why they’re producing quality players.
One of the reasons, as I said, why I coached at Queens was it was the first opportunity where I could get a chance to coach young players within Ulster. What I thought was: if I can coach them for 2 or 3 years while they’re studying at Queens and then if there was 3 or 4 of them from Ballymena or 3 or 4 of them from Banbridge, 3 or 4 from Ballynahinch direction, Coleraine, Enniskillen that once they finish Queens, that they filtered back into their local team with a better understanding of how to play the game and hopefully that raised the levels within the club game across the board.
Maybe, down the line there could also be some late developers who actually come back into the system and who potentially go and play for Ulster. Stuart McCloskey, Craig Gilroy, who came in later on down the line have done so well – they played club rugby for Bangor and then got picked up later on. They’ve both gone on to play international rugby.
What is the difference between guys who stand out at school and guys who make it professionally?
The difference is that you get early bloomers who succeed in everything they do, then all of a sudden, they hit a brick wall. They run into difficulty and they go “shit, this is hard, I don’t think I’m cut out for this”. Then, all of a sudden, that’s it.
Then you get other guys who keep getting knocked back, keep getting knocked back, keep getting knocked back. I always played and coached with a chip on my shoulder because I didn’t represent any age grade teams so one of the reasons why I went to South Africa to play cricket and coach cricket was I didn’t get picked for the Ireland under 19 World Cup cricket team. I’d been playing first XI cricket for 5 years and didn’t get picked. “Fair enough”, I thought, “I’m going to prove these guys wrong”. Two weeks later I got picked for the Ireland under 23’s and did pretty well but that under 19 team went to the World Cup. I went to South Africa and then came back and played international cricket.
In terms of rugby, in that 5 year period between the 12th and 13th cap, I wanted to prove to myself that I still had it, that I could still compete, that I could play at a level that could potentially get a professional contract and I was lucky enough to do that. Sometimes it’s the setbacks that drive you on to something better.
I think if you look at Tom Brady, he’s a prime example – gets drafted 199th, there’s 6 quarterbacks picked before him including an athletic quarterback called Giovanni Carmazzi. Carmazzi never saw action in a regular season game, and was out of the league after two seasons. Brady, on the other hand, who was seen as this un-athletic, underwhelming Michigan quarterback, has cemented himself as the greatest to ever play the position. He just had that mental capacity. He never had the same physique or athleticism as some players but he always delivered. Like a lot of top end sport now, it’s the mental capacity that leads to the top.
The level of strength and conditioning now for all top athletes is phenomenal. No athlete is wanting for anything. I suppose the difference now at the top end is skill level. That skill level is determined by the mental capacity of the athlete and whether they compete and can control their emotions with 100,000 people watching and can deliver at that moment. Some people freeze and can’t do it and other guys are able to thrive in it. They’re able to thrive because they love that environment but they’re also able to probably block out the 100,000 people and just focus on the technical aspects of what they’re trying to do and they’re able to compartmentalise and break that down into small parts and deliver on that at crucial times.
Tom Brady has done that on numerous occasions throughout his career. It takes such a strong mental capacity to deliver in crucial moments. I follow the Patriots quite a lot so there’s something that intrigued me in that.
Athletically, I wasn’t massively gifted – I had to work unbelievably hard to get myself in decent shape. The mental side of things is a huge, huge part of the game now.
What advice would you give to an 18-year-old rugby player? What can they do to become professional?
If they want to have a crack at it, it’s actually sitting down and basically setting out their long-term goals then breaking that down into smaller goals. If it’s the physical side of the game, the technical side of the game, the tactical side of the game, even the mental side of the game… The mental side of the game, you continually have to work at that. Sometimes in professional sport now, it’s who’s robust enough to last.
Also, you need a little bit of luck, probably a lot of luck, being in the right place at the right time. Going back to Tom Brady, Drew Bledsoe had just been signed to the Patriots on a $100m contract, 10-year deal and he gets busted in the third week and he’s out for 8 weeks. Tom Brady gets his opportunity and he took his opportunity. Bill Belichick decides “you know what? I’m sticking with Tom Brady.” Yes, you need a little bit of luck, but Tom Brady was ready to take that and delivered at the end of that season by winning the Superbowl.
Gary Player, the famous golfer, was asked the question and said, “The more I practice the luckier I get”. My work ethic has probably taken me quite far in my career in both cricket and rugby. I have always worked hard, and I suppose the younger players, if they get that early success, sometimes they don’t feel that they have to keep working. Without a shadow of a doubt, the best players in the world no matter what sport will tell you: When you think you’ve mastered the fundamentals, you haven’t. You have to go back to the start again. The fundamentals of whatever you do are your foundation. You can never think that you know it all and you’ve mastered the fundamentals – keep going back and make sure you’re doing the basics well.
When I spoke to the likes of Louis Ludik (and a number of the other Ulster guys) most say there were guys who were better than they were when they were at school, but Louis, for example, says he’s built his career on being rock solid and reliable.
You need those types of players, Louis was phenomenal and still is. As he said, he’s got a lot of strings to his bow and can play in different positions with regards to rugby. He’s got a really good work ethic and he doesn’t take anything for granted. He knows he has to keep working hard to get better. He’s a good guy, very down to earth and he knows what he needs to do to deliver and has done that for Ulster and obviously for the Sharks and when he played for Agen.
Do you think sports psychology is something which is underutilised in rugby?
In the past, we’ve tried to do team stuff and in my experience that hasn’t really worked. I think for certain individuals, it benefits them greatly. Others are able to sit down with the coach and have a plan in place and sort of get it rubber stamped by the coach and go “Have you thought about this to add on to that?” and so on and so forth.
As I said, the top end elite sportsmen, the mental side of the game is what differs for them. They’re able to sit down and motivate themselves and know what they need to do and have an end goal that they’re driven to achieve. Others need a little bit of direction to help them along the way. As I said, we tried it in a team environment and it probably didn’t work as well as we had hoped.
I think certain individuals just didn’t buy into it as a collective. They’re going “I don’t need this, it’s a waste of my time, I know where I’m at, I know what I need to do.” Whereas other guys just need a little bit of direction.
Like every sportsman, there’s going to be highs and lows. Maybe at certain times, mentoring helps them through that tough period. It could be from long-term injury or non-selection and they can’t quite get their head round it. Once they’re back on the paddock and playing well, maybe that interaction happens a little more ad hoc or as the player feels he needs to speak to somebody.
It’s something coaches can deliver themselves or sometimes they bring in outside consultants or professionals to aid the team in that there. Everybody does varying degrees of that psychological work.
How important is mental health as a rugby player? Is there more that could be done for players?
I suppose in the past rugby was always a tough sport, ‘just tighten up and get on with it’. I think society has changed massively. Within the IRFU and within Ireland and a lot of the other unions, you’ve got the players association that aid the players educationally through their rugby career and give them avenues to look after the financial side of it, to look after their educational side, to look after their transition out of the game or into a new role within the game.
When you go into the professional game, no matter what stage you go in, you’ve got to have that education about the transitional period. For me, it has got to be to the forefront of everything you do. You might not know career-wise down the line what you end up doing. Some guys are quite lucky – Jamie Roberts for example is now a qualified doctor. Felipe Contepomi for Leinster is a qualified doctor. There are guys that know down the line when they transition out of rugby, that’s the avenue they’re going to go into. Other guys go into property development or some other profession they’ve been interested in.
I do think that IRPA are working behind the scenes to help that transition smoothly for players. As I said earlier, nobody knows when that happens. As an ex-player, they’re in contact with me regularly through the advisors saying listen there’s networking opportunities, there’s this and that, there’s opportunities to join gyms. Keep that healthy lifestyle, because for a lot of professional athletes they have to work really hard to maintain their playing weight and when they finish the weight drops off them and they have to work hard to come back to a normal weight. Other guys unfortunately, like myself, have to try and keep on top of things or you’ll go the other way!
That healthy lifestyle, especially when you transition from a full-time athlete, training potentially 5 days a week, playing as well, your understanding and education on the nutritional side becomes massive. I think you’ll find that a lot of ex-players do struggle for a couple of years after because the calorie intake that you need to play high level sport… then when you’re not doing that it can be quite difficult. Obviously, the health ramifications down the line of obesity and stuff can come to the fore. I suppose everybody needs to be educated in that regard.
Yeah, I suppose you go from living in a rugby bubble where everything is planned to little or no direction on what to do when you leave the game?
It is massive. As I said earlier, I was quite fortunate that I played an amateur era and a professional era. I had exposure to the rugby bubble, but I also had exposure to a more normal way of life. I had to get off my own ass and do certain things and get myself organised. My transition was easier because of that – I had experience of both sides.
Is there a time when a failure has set you up for a later success?
The biggest thing for me was non-selection. I was just ‘right, f**k this, I’m going to prove these guys wrong’. That was the biggest thing for me. That period that I went to play for Ballymena for one year, a certain couple of individuals said that if I moved to Ballymena I would probably never play for Ulster again and I suppose that lit a bit of a fire.
I suppose I’m quite single-minded so that if someone says I can’t do that then ‘f**k it, I’m going to do that’. That’s the biggest driver for me over my career, trying to prove people wrong, that drove me. That’s probably the biggest factor for me. Ironically it happened in both sports, both cricket and rugby. That’s why I feel it’s the biggest factor in me doing what I do.
What’s life been like at Worcester?
It’s a totally different league to the Pro 14 and I suppose my role hasn’t changed massively, transitioning from Ulster over to Worcester. The biggest difference that I’ve seen within the two leagues is that in the Irish system the international players are rested more regularly and the IRFU dictate that. The Premiership teams are run by owners and the RFU buy in to the clubs so that the international players are allowed to take certain windows of rest but you’re playing massive games every week.
Anybody who transitions from the Pro 14 to the premiership will probably tell you that the biggest difference is the physical side of the game on such a regular basis. The difference in the 2 systems is that the IRFU are the dictators to the program and the process. In the Premiership, the owners are the dictators. One’s a feeder system to a national system and the other one’s just feeding its own club and that’s all they’re worried about. Some owners may want England to succeed and some of them may feel it’s a by-product just of the club doing well. It’s two different thought processes, one’s a real feeder system to a national system.
What are your expectations for Ulster going forward?
From what I’ve seen this season, and I suppose even to an extent whenever I coached, when Marcell Coetzee played I saw the difference that his physical nature has brought to Ulster. Stuart McCloskey is also a great player and I think the two of them have allowed other players to blossom. Will Addison looks also looks really exciting.
I do think that younger players when they get opportunities have done pretty well. It’s going to take a little bit of time for those younger players to really feel part of it, to feel comfortable within it, but to continually deliver, that’s the key. You can play week in, week out but the bottom line in you’ve got to do the job that delivers success.
From Ulster’s point of view, I was quite fortunate that in my time we qualified for play-offs nearly every single year. I was lucky enough to be part of the that set-up that got to the European Cup final, Pro-12 final, and we played in quite a number of play-offs. Ulster want to get back to that on a regular basis, not just qualifying, they want to be right at the top.
It’s like everything, it takes time. Sometimes you just need a little bit of luck and you can add in some world class overseas players to really bolster the squad then it’s prime time to really deliver some success.
We’re hopeful as fans. Thank you, Neil!