Ireland's Rob Herring on mission to prove Six Nation's appeal
Having been handed his Ireland debut on the 2014 tour to Argentina, Rob Herring has made the trip to Carton House numerous times since without adding to his solitary cap but the hooker journeyed south yesterday determined to force his way into Joe Schmidt's match-day plans for the upcoming Six Nations title defence.
With Ulster team-mate Rory Best, now the international captain, more certain to start than ever before, the three remaining hookers in the 35-man squad realistically know they are battling to provide back-up for the 89-times capped stalwart.
Despite a string of impressive performances for his province in Best's absence during recent seasons, it's a familiar situation for Herring but the Cape Town native remains resolute in his ambitions to make a Six Nations bow over the next two months.
"I was a bit surprised to get the call (for the wider squad), because I haven't had that much game time in the last few weeks," said Herring after captaining Ulster to a Champions Cup victory against Oyonnax at the weekend - which wasn't enough to progress to the quarter-finals.
"When I saw the squad and saw there were four hookers I was a bit surprised. There are not normally four but I'm delighted to be included.
"I knew going into this (Oyonnax) game and starting, that it was a chance to put my hand up for the Six Nations match-day squads.
"I've got to try my best to show Joe I can do a job."
His performance on Saturday will have no doubt provided a reminder, the 25-year-old offering his usual solidity in the set-piece while also mimicking Best's impact at the breakdown.
Getting the chance to start, and line out at hooker when recent cameos off the bench have come at flanker, it was his work around the park however that really caught the eye.
Herring was involved throughout in the side's effort to move the ball at pace and, having already opened the scoring with his first European try, even stepped into first receiver to provide the inside ball for Jared Payne that led to Darren Cave crossing over.
Perhaps displaying a perfectionist's streak, it was a pass that didn't go to hand however - a looping delivery intended for Craig Gilroy on the sideline - on the former London Irish man's mind.
"It was good to be back at hooker," he reflected. "I don't mind filling in at flanker but it was nice to start at hooker.
"I don't score too many but it was nice as well to get over.
"I've been working on my carrying a bit so it's good for me to get into space and I think I'm quite quick so hopefully it's something I can add.
"I was a bit annoyed I couldn't get the pass off to Gilly because he said he would have been in for a try."
While his own, and the team's, performance against the struggling French side was encouraging, Ulster got little reward for their efforts, results elsewhere ensuring they missed out on the quarter-finals by a point.
Knowing the team had numerous chances to stay in control of their own fate throughout the campaign, Herring echoed the opinion of his Director of Rugby Les Kiss when pointing to two defeats at the hands of Saracens as the moments to regret.
"Losing to Sarries at home," he replied when asked where Ulster felt they should have picked up the extra points needed to qualify.
"We want to win our home games to give ourselves the best chance. To not be in these situations at the end of the pool stages (waiting on other teams), you've got to win your home games.
"Last week (away to Saracens), we felt we should have got the bonus point by keeping them within seven. Those are the two disappointments."
While there will be no European rugby for Ulster come April, with Leinster and Munster's exits signalling a first quarter-finals since 1997-98 without Irish representation, Herring has witnessed plenty of evidence that the province are moving in the right direction with Kiss at the helm.
While his own performances filling in for Best have been as reliable as ever, the campaign has also saw players such as Kyle McCall, Alan O'Connor and Rory Scholes impress when stepping into the void created by injuries.
"There's been a big change in the mentality of the squad as a whole since Les has been in," Herring affirmed.
"I think you can see now when guys have to step in for injuries, whoever comes in can do the job. We've always spoken about having a good squad but we're showing it now. Guys can come in when they're needed."
Ulster have released lock Lewis Stevenson so the 31-year-old can rejoin his former side Exeter Chiefs. Contracted until the end of this season, Stevenson thanked the province for granting the move.
"The time is right for me to face a new challenge and I am excited about being part of Exeter Chiefs again," he said.
"I appreciate how Ulster have handled this and I wish them every success for the rest of the season."