"I have to come into this camp and do what I can to get the No.2 jersey" - Rob Herring
"I have to do what I can to get the No.2 jersey."
48 hours out from a trip to Portugal for some warm weather training with Ireland, Rob Herring is in top form and reflecting on the choices that brought him to where he is now.
You talk to Herring of his 200+ caps for Ulster, scoring tries seemingly at will in a powerful attacking maul unit, scoring a try against the country of his birth and being part of Ireland teams that won an away tour in Australia and resoundingly beat the All Blacks in Dublin.
He mulls it all, then remarks, "Gosh, hard to think I'm 31 now."
On Saturday, just gone, Herring bagged himself another rolling maul try in a 34-31 win over Clermont, at Kingspan Stadium. Toulouse await, over two legs, in the Champions Cup Last 16 and, following the match, Herring backed up his teammate James Hume's comments. Ulster are gunning for a second European title.
If they can close games out, and protect leads better, in the coming weeks and months, they may yet back up the talk.
Ulster will have to do without Hume, Herring and several other stars, in the United Rugby Championship this weekend. They are now focusing on winning spots in the Ireland XV for the Six Nations. Herring is like so many others in the Ireland squad - up against Leinster lads in ridiculous form.
Rob Herring nears Ulster record
Having played eight times over five years for Joe Schmidt, Rob Herring got a better crack at the Ireland hooking position after the Kiwi stepped away, along with captain Rory Best.
Herring was in the shadow of Best for a number of years, but was also an able deputy. Such is his importance to Ulster that he should, at some point next season, break and plough on past their record caps mark [jointly held by Andrew Trimble and Darren Cave] of 229.
"Yes, Cavey was messaging, to see if I could slow down with the caps a bit," Herring says. "He's very proud of his record."
Craig Gilroy is past of Ulster's 200+ club now, so both he and Herring are pushing each other to hit 300 and beyond.
It is some going for a player that initially arrived at the province on a six-month deal, after David Humphreys [then Ulster director of rugby] learned Herring had an Irish grandfather. Connacht had been in touch, too, but the Cape Town native headed for Belfast because of the family connections there.
"When I first arrived," he says, "I remember it being summer and it was raining every day. I was like, 'What is going on here?!
"I soon found my feet, though. I moved in with Ali Birch, the flanker, and we met our mates from there. I got a few starts as Rory started back later after the [2012 New Zealand] tour, and it all went from there."
Three into the No.2 jersey won't go
Leinster hookers Rónan Kelleher and Dan Sheehan are both in irresistible form and Andy Farrell may be tempted with going with them for the Six Nations. Herring is in decent form himself, though, and has started nine of Ireland's last 10 Six Nations games.
Is it a matter of going to Portugal, we ask, to show Farrell and the Leinster tyros what he is all about?
"Yeah, 100%. In the autumn, I featured but I didn't start any of the games. That was a bit disappointing for me but, if I'm honest, coming into the tournament, I probably wasn't playing at the level I wanted to be. That is under my control, so that's on me.
"The other two boys have been playing really, really well and there's lots of competition for that hooking spot. I've really tried to put up my hand in Europe, these last couple of months. And I have to come into this camp, now, to do what I can to get the No.2 jersey for the game against Wales."
"We're all pushing each other hard," he adds. "It's good for the team that there is incredible competition. Hopefully that will bring the best out of all of us."
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