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Rob Herring targets Rory Best's starting Ulster Rugby slot

By Jonathan Bradley

While his Ulster team-mates spent their recent downtime pursuing a wide variety of activities - the Cheltenham Festival, trips home to the southern hemisphere, Belfast Giants games and holding tackle bags at Carton House to name a few - Rob Herring opted for seeing more of his adopted homeland.

Taking in the Cliffs of Moher, the Dingle Peninsula and Dunguaire Castle on the trip means that the South Africa native has already seen more of the country than many a local but the next time Herring heads south-west it will be in a professional capacity.

Having started Ulster's last four games - and sure to make it five in a row when Cardiff Blues visit the Kingspan on Friday evening - his status will be less certain when Ulster travel to face Connacht in a couple of weeks, given that usual hooker and captain Rory Best will be back in provincial colours having spent the last two months helping Ireland to a second consecutive Six Nations title.

Irrespective of how Herring performs against Cardiff this week, his 83-times capped senior partner will expect a return to the number two jersey for the trip to Galway.

For the Cape Town-born 24-year-old - Irish-qualified and himself capped by Joe Schmidt on last summer's tour of Argentina - Best acts as both a valuable teacher and a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to his first-team ambitions, an odd position even for a player who has time on his side.

"It is pretty tough," Herring reflected. "Rory is Ireland's number one and always seems to be playing great rugby but I like to think that I'm able to start pushing him.

"Over the last couple of years I've really learned a lot from him and the way he plays is the same as the way I want to play. I want to keep pushing and see how that goes.

"Obviously whenever Rory comes back he's going to be looking to start and the best that I can do is just play well, put a bit of pressure on him, and hopefully get a bit of time off the bench and a few starts as well."

With Best's return to the fold imminent, Herring hopes his upcoming minutes off the bench will be more significant having appeared as a substitute just three times this season before the 65th minute.

"I think looking back on the first half of the season that's probably where I was a bit frustrated, when I wasn't getting extended time off the bench," he said. "I've worked hard and hopefully I've shown that I can add a bit of impact in the last 20-30 minutes of the game."

For another week at least, he remains a sure starter however as Ulster look to finally cleanse their palate of a defeat to the Dragons in Newport last time out.

By the time they run out against Cardiff on Friday, almost three weeks will have passed since the disappointment in west Wales, with Herring itching to get back into action.

"We're keen to put things right," he said. "We let a chance go to put a bit of distance between ourselves and the other teams. We did manage to pick up a point, the other provinces losing gave us a bit of a lucky escape, and we still went second but we wanted that buffer.

"It was pretty tough, especially last week when we ended up training pretty hard, I think just to take a bit of the frustration out during the contact sessions.

"It is always hard when you have that wait but we're fired up and ready to go for this one."

Much has changed since the 26-9 September win over Friday's opponents, the Blues having lost their Director of Rugby Mark Hammett just six months into a three-year contract.

Despite the state of flux, they have won their last two games and Herring asserts that Ulster must be on point.

"The coaches will have us prepared, especially with the extra training week, and we'll know what we have to do to break them down and what we have to do to put them under pressure. It's just up to us to perform."

With the race for minutes second only to the race for silverware, you imagine that is especially true for the man so often behind Ulster's skipper.

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