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Zebre v Ulster: Pressure of having no margin for error drives us on: Herring

By Michael Sadlier

With their next three games against Italian opposition, you could be forgiven for thinking that Ulster are in a great place to easily rack up more bonus-point wins in their bid to gain a foothold in the PRO12’s top four.

But Rob Herring is quick to dispel the notion that, starting with basement side Zebre on Sunday, this three-game segment will just be a fairly relaxed procession of one-sided scorelines for Les Kiss’ squad who are currently in fifth, but six points off fourth place.

The intention has to be about producing another maximum point win to accompany the two achieved against Edinburgh and Glasgow, but the Ulster hooker has warned his team-mates that any complacency, or loss of focus, could cost them dearly in their drive towards making and then staying in the top four.

“Our backs are up against the wall a bit,” noted Herring of Ulster’s league position with eight games to go. “We need to put in good performances to come away with the win otherwise the season is going to be over for us.”

So, Ulster just can’t afford any slips-up at all but definitely have to do the business over the next three matches against Zebre twice — their second encounter will account for the province’s game in hand — with Treviso at home sandwiched between those outings.

“It’s always nice to have it (a top-four finish) in your own hands but now that we don’t have that control it actually drives you that little bit extra,” the 26-year-old South African admitted.

“We can’t afford to be complacent any more this season and if we want to reach the top four and achieve silverware then we don’t have many more chances,” he added of Ulster’s remaining games.

“As a squad, we’ve been honest about what we need to do to win the PRO12 title. I can’t see us being complacent any more this year.”

Just as well, really, as Ulster know that only by continuing the momentum they have managed to dig out over the last two games can they realistically hope to be involved in knockout rugby this May.

And Herring — who returned from a knee injury against Glasgow last Saturday after last featuring in the New Year’s Eve defeat at Leinster — points out that the squad have been re-energised by halting their morale-sapping four-game losing run.

“It’s amazing what two good wins (over Edinburgh and Glasgow) can do and we really needed that,” stated the player set to make his 113th Ulster appearance in Parma on Sunday.

“The change in the camp at the moment is massively exciting and massively positive and we just want to keep building on those performances.”

Of course, the matter of playing whipping boys Zebre can’t be discussed without bringing up what happened over there in September 2014 when Ulster lost the plot — and Declan Fitzpatrick to a red card — by going down 13-6.

It comes as no surprise that the Cape Town native doesn’t want to dwell on that awful day but you sense that he, and his team-mates, will have used that blip as another part of their preparation for this encounter.

“If we’re honest, we haven’t performed as well as we should have when we go and play away at Zebre (they won 47-17 last time but shaded it 19-11 in November 2013) so that’s been a massive challenge for us,” stated Herring.

“It’s something we want to put right this weekend and it’s something we’ve talked about quite a bit.”

As is the requirement of putting in a much more consistent performance over the full game, something which, as Herring points out, is central to the plan.

“Hopefully you’re going to see a full 80-minute performance,” he added.

“We know if we go through our processes and turn up with the right attitude and just keep ticking away we can get the win.”

Only a resounding victory will suffice.

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