How renewed focus is paying off for Herring as he makes his mark for Ulster
Funny the way things can turn around so fast. A couple of months ago, Rob Herring's family in South Africa had booked flights and accommodation across country to Port Elizabeth for the historic visit of Ulster in the Guinness PRO14. Rob had been told by coach Les Kiss that he was likely to start. It was going to be a bonus reunion for all concerned.
Then Niall Scannell had to withdraw from the Ireland squad preparing for the November series, and Herring got the call. It was more than three years since his one and only Ireland cap - against Argentina, in Tucuman. Given the time lag, and the increase in competition, he had pretty much accepted that there might not be another one. Fast forward to the series opener against South Africa and he's coming off the bench to score one of Ireland's four tries in a record win over the Springboks.
Herring's dad and two of his sisters had managed to change travel plans to be in Lansdowne Road that day for what was a special occasion. All concerned would have bought into the idea that whatever waits around the next corner is not something you can script. For Herring and Ulster this is not a bad thing, for their efforts this season at joining the dots has given them a series of scrawls instead of the clean lines they were after.
For example, in the week leading up to the first leg of their Champions Cup tie against this coming Saturday's opposition, La Rochelle, forwards coach Jono Gibbes was talking about his side kicking on again from the win over Wasps the previous weekend. It was an opportunity for them, he hoped, to lay down a marker. Three minutes into that game in Stade Marcel-Deflandre and the Ulster lads were lining up behind their own posts having done the polar opposite of what they said they would do. It would be the theme of the season - so far.
Herring is well placed to do something about it. When Rory Best is out of the picture the South African takes over the reins. And that's a regular occurrence given that for Best, Saturday against Leinster was just his fourth appearance since coming back from the Lions tour. It helps that his stand-in is a veteran of 134 provincial caps himself.
It's easy to forget that virtually all of Herring's pro career has been at Kingspan. He grew up a short hop along the coast from Cape Town, a beautiful part of the world where the sea was his playground.
"Yes, I had the Indian Ocean five minutes one way and the Atlantic five minutes in the other direction," he says. "Pretty much my whole childhood was spent surfing. I did life-saving, a lot of water polo at school along with rugby and cricket. Certainly, in school, I achieved a lot more in water polo than I did in rugby - all the provincial age grade stuff. I really enjoyed it. Obviously, rugby was always one of my favourite sports but I just achieved more in water polo."
So he wasn't solely focused on the idea of getting a shot in one of South Africa's rugby franchises when he left school. Rugby, though, was still an attractive option. In which case the opportunity of getting into the London Irish Academy presented itself conveniently. He was planning on a gap year anyway in London when his school headmaster - who had a connection in the Exiles - pointed him towards Sunbury where one of their Academy hookers had just torn an ACL.
Herring got in for the 2009/10 season, and did well. Three years later he was making his debut for Ulster, picked up by David Humphreys, in a pre-season friendly. It helped that he had an Irish passport through his maternal grandmother.
So Herring is part of the furniture here now. Maybe after five seasons in Best's shadow there had been a bit of the easy chair about him, but this season there has been a clear change in demeanour.
"I just refocused in the off-season and set myself new goals," he says. "I knew I had to work a bit harder. I had been cutting a few corners last year. It's a weird one, really. If everyone knew how to find form, we would all be flying, eh?
"The new coaches coming in - I've really responded to the way that Jono coaches. He has been great for me personally as well. It's a combination of things, really. I've been really enjoying my rugby this year, which is one of the biggest factors.
"I'm slightly bigger. I was playing around 100/103kg last year. I'm now around 105, so I have bulked up a little bit over the last five months. There's a lot of competition for the hooker spots. I guess what I see as my strength is my work-rate. I like to see myself as a defensive leader at Ulster. Obviously, set-piece has to be spot on. In the scrums, I think I'm getting better though obviously, it wasn't a great showing at the weekend for us at scrum time (against Munster).
"Scrums and line-outs are basic things for a hooker and obviously getting around the park. Something I've worked on is my ball carry. Previous seasons I probably wouldn't have had that many carries so I've been trying to be a bit more dominant and get more carries in games, and that's probably showed in the first half of this season."
More worrying, what has shown for the group has been the maddening and meandering course they have taken through the season. In an ideal world, Ulster would have their marquee names fit every week, in which case they'd compete on all fronts. So when you withdraw a bunch of those at any given time you find the cupboard bare of home-grown products to fill the gaps.
In a campaign of scarcely believable defensive frailty, the first half at Kingspan last Monday, where the Munster forwards were wondering how playing rugby could be actually easier than training for it, Ulster's fans didn't know where to look. On the last play of the half, 0-17 down, Herring opted to put a penalty in the corner instead of over the bar. They were emptied again.
"Look, in hindsight I probably should have just gone for the posts, taken three points and refocused at half-time," he says. "I felt like I just wanted to give our forwards an opportunity to get one win in the half. It was probably the first time in the half that we had a little bit of momentum - that last period. This is an opportunity to get a win for the forwards and a try for the team. It didn't work out as planned obviously!"
Who knows the psychological damage that would have been done had they not, with Munster's help, turned it around in the second half for a remarkable bonus-point win that keeps them on course for a play-off berth from Conference B. As for Europe, here come La Rochelle again. Top of the tree in this pool and in the Top 14, the French will be getting after the Ulster pack at the first opportunity next Saturday.
"Yes, it's obviously something we've had to address," Herring says. "In the last two weeks, our maul 'D' hasn't been up to scratch. Obviously, La Rochelle have a massive pack. I know scrummaging against them last time was tough going. They have a lot of weight behind them. We've just got to prepare the way we prepare, and get our things right before we start worrying about what they are going to bring.
"We know that on our day, in big European games, we can beat any side. We have shown it in the past and we can take confidence from that. It's a new season, new coaches. We've just got to do our thing and take the game to La Rochelle. We can't just sit back and let them come to us."
Herring, who has just signed a three-year contract extension, reckons it's time he moved Best a little bit closer to retirement. But if November reiterated for him that making plans is a capricious business then maybe he's best keeping things short term. Staying alive in Europe would be far enough for the moment.