Determined Rob Herring aiming to net success at Ulster
Rob Herring will be packing down in the middle of Ulster's front row tomorrow night against Leinster knowing that this is a hugely important year for him.
He is Rory Best's understudy and the captain is always going to be Ulster's number one number two.
In the past that was a straightforward enough matter; when Best was resting, injured or on international duty, Herring stepped up.
There was no shortage of work in that role; last season the 24-year-old represented Ulster on 26 occasions, culminating in him getting his first Ireland cap at full international level back in June when he replaced Best from the bench against Argentina.
There was no shortage of familiar faces on that occasion, for in addition to Best, Ulster had starters in Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave and Chris Henry, while Iain Henderson was one of Herring's bench colleagues.
Having already played for Emerging Ireland and Ireland Wolfhounds, his debut at senior level underlined the steady progress he has made since joining Ulster from Western Province in June 2012. Already he has made 47 appearances for his adopted province.
Of course, Herring's rise in the Irish pecking order means that he too may be called away on international duty.
"Well.... hopefully that happens," he said modestly.
"But if I look at it realistically there is a lot of competition at hooker so I just want to keep my head down, play well for Ulster and work hard towards an Ireland call-up.
"I just want to go on improving as a rugby player, get game-time with Ulster and then hopefully get another shot with Ireland. But my first focus is with Ulster."
Underlining his loyalty to the province he added: "Obviously you want to see the guys doing well and getting Ireland call-ups, but at the same time you know they will be missed by Ulster.
"So that's something we've really worked on this pre-season – our depth in the squad and making sure guys are ready to step up and do the same job as the player they are replacing. Or maybe do it even better."
The June trip to Argentina clearly made a big impression on him.
"I think the main thing I took out of it was seeing where I need to improve and what more I have to be doing in order to get cap two and cap three," he said.
"Just seeing the way some of the guys train – the intensity of the work they put in – to play for Ireland was definitely a big step up. It meant I was pushing harder in all aspects of my training while I was with them."
Asked if he had found it a welcoming environment for a new boy, Herring replied: "Yes, definitely, very welcoming. Everyone is very helpful and willing to help you out. There were a few Ulster boys there, of course, so that was helpful, too."
Another plus at this stage of his development is the appointment of Allen Clarke as Ulster's forwards coach. With Clarke having been a hooker, now Herring is learning from someone who knows exactly what goes on in the front row and is fully aware of the demands on the man between the props.
"Having worked with him over the past two seasons when he did scrum sessions with us I have got to know him a little," Herring said.
"He's a really good coach. I think he has helped me improve my scrummaging and throwing techniques, so I think making him our forwards coach will be a really good thing for Ulster.
"He knows the Ulster way and I think what he brings because of that will be really good for us."
Herring was positive, too, about the new additions to the Ulster squad, albeit that he knows they are being asked to fill huge shoes.
"We have lost a lot of experience with Tom (Court), John (Afoa) and of course Johann (Muller) moving on and that is something that can have an effect on a team." he admitted.
"But the guys who have come in have been great so far. With Franco (van der Merwe), already you can see the sort of leadership role he brings.
"And when new guys come in there's sort of a new excitement about things and that makes people push each other that little bit harder for a place, so I think in terms of the squad it's maybe a good thing to have some fresh faces."
Tomorrow's run-out – the last before the start of the season proper – is against Leinster at Tallaght Stadium.
"We all know Leinster – they've been front-runners for the past five or six years so they're always going to be a tough challenge.
"We know they have an excellent set-piece and they have great strength in depth in their backs and forwards as well. But we just want to test ourselves, test our own systems, get our set-piece right and get our attack plays going," Herring said.
"If we come out of it having got our basics right for the start of the season, that will be good."