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Rob Herring calls for Ulster to stand up and save season

 

By Michael Sadlier

At a loose end last Saturday, Rob Herring sat down to watch Munster's European Champions Cup quarter-final with Toulon but took no pleasure from the encounter.

Andrew Conway's stunning solo try to snatch the game passed him by and as Thomond Park was enveloped in scenes of jubilation, the 27-year-old switched off and headed for the sanctuary of the gym.

There he could block it all out, allow his frustration an outlet. Indeed, the way things are at Ulster, you sense that the gym is a haven for all those seeking escapism.

"It's massively difficult to watch those games while missing out on them," Herring explains.

"It's hugely frustrating in terms of the last few seasons when we haven't reached that stage (Europe's last eight).

"But to remain in the Champions Cup for next season is a massive priority for us," he adds, though the realistic prospect of them losing fourth spot in the PRO14's Conference B - which in itself only secures a play-off to stay in Europe's main event - to Benetton Rugby will trash that hope.

Precious few believe that Ulster can salvage much of value from this wreckage of a season and that they can close the 13-point gap on tomorrow evening's opponents Edinburgh to keep their slender hopes of a top three finish still just about breathing.

With Herring having been more closely involved than he would have anticipated in so much of Ulster's season - thanks to Rory Best's injury profile, though the Ireland skipper is expected to be back for this key clash - the Cape Town native can only reiterate his bewilderment at how it has unravelled.

It's been a season of unprecedented difficulty which has seen Ulster's playing form teeter from being wobbly to now looking close to the point of collapse thanks to just one win in their last four PRO14 games since January's ignominious European exit at Wasps.

The three-times capped Ireland player does his best to sound upbeat that Ulster might yet taste knockout rugby in the PRO14 but also, more pressingly, protect the crown jewel of being in next season's Champions Cup.

"Our backs are up against the wall but I'm just focusing on this weekend," he says.

"It's a massive game for us not just in terms of the Champions Cup but in terms of knockout rugby in the PRO14.

"It's not something you want to let go and that starts with this weekend.

"We've another 80 minutes this week to try and get it right," he notes of the grim fact that Ulster have only won twice away from home in the PRO14 and last managed it back in November at the Southern Kings.

Things haven't exactly been great at home either, though, with a very costly last-gasp defeat to Edinburgh beginning the recent three-game losing run under Jono Gibbes' soon-to-end tenure.

"We're not playing as confidently as we'd like, but there's no easy fix for that," is Herring's rather ominous-sounding take on it all.

They do, at least, meet Edinburgh in the wake of the Scots being beaten at home by Cardiff Blues, in the European Challenge Cup quarter-final, but Ulster's awful away day record still overshadows this trip to Murrayfield.

"That's been the frustrating thing," sighs Herring.

"Not being at home (in the losses at the Scarlets and Cardiff Blues) and then not starting the games as strongly as we would have liked and not winning our next moment to get back in the game.

"The frustrating thing is that over the last couple of weeks we've been training really well.

"These have been some of the best prep weeks we've had but we've just not been executing the game-plan properly in the actual 80 minutes."

It prompts a statement of hope rather than intent.

"We're all ambitious players and we want to deliver for our personal ambitions and it's also what the club and fans deserve," Herring explains.

He then talks about maybe changing some of the pre-match routine in Edinburgh to help break up the day and perhaps try something different to be in the right head-space come kick-off.

Anything's worth a try with Ulster's awful record when they venture forth from the Kingspan and he cites Gibbes as asking for positivity to underpin their approach.

"We've heard Jono talking about building for the next moment," Herring mentions.

"With a bit of luck we can play well and win those big moments in the game, and those smaller ones too, and then start playing with confidence again."

It all sounds like a big ask.

Meanwhile, Ulster's home fixture with Glasgow has been re-scheduled for Saturday, April 21 (kick-off 6.05pm).

The fixture, now Ulster's final home game of the regulation season, was postponed in early March due to the adverse weather. Tickets purchased for the original fixture remain valid.

Belfast Telegraph

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