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I'm out to give McFarland a real selection conundrum, says Andrew

Ulster v Cardiff Blues, Guinness Pro14 Championship, Kingspan Stadium, Friday, 7.35pm

On run: John Andrew is keen to stake a claim for a starting position
On run: John Andrew is keen to stake a claim for a starting position
Michael Lowry

By Michael Sadlier

These are interesting times at Ulster for those who earn their corn playing in the middle of the front-row.

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Rob Herring has been patiently waiting to take pretty much full ownership of the No.2 jersey as the province continue to move on without having to factor in a certain Mr Best returning, while John Andrew has also sensed that a higher foothold is his for the taking in what was the established pecking order.

And yet for all that, not a huge amount has really changed for Andrew.

Best moved out of Kingspan Stadium last May, but the long-serving veteran's disappearance over the horizon has not meant that Andrew has substantially advanced his cause as, in recent seasons, the former Ulster and now Ireland skipper was not a regular performer for his province anyway.

So, Andrew is in a familiar enough place. He still has Herring in front of him and the Ballymena native is battling it out with Adam McBurney to nail down the No.16 shirt, which is by no means a foregone conclusion even though he has benched for Ulster in their first two games this season, against the Ospreys and then the rather forgettable game at the Cheetahs.

But there are still shafts of light to be pursued. Herring's Ireland involvement saw him called out to Japan and, under the new broom of Andy Farrell, he might just become a more active member of the national squad.

Such a development would, in turn, see the field somewhat more levelled in that Andrew and McBurney would likely end up in a straight two-way fight for a starting place should Herring be required to do rather more than travel up and down to Carton House.

At 26-years-old and with 58 appearances already chalked up - mostly from the bench, of course - Andrew could do with a break, especially as he managed only two starts last season from being involved in 13 senior games.

He knows those figures need to be upped, and it needs to happen now for the hooker, who made his debut back in December 2014.

"I think I have been waiting for Rory to retire for a while but he just kept on going and kept on performing," said Andrew, though it could easily be Herring doing the talking.

"Rob is in top spot at the minute and he is playing well. All the hookers below him want that (starting place) and clearly nobody wants to sit on the bench or be 24th man.

"Hopefully I get an opportunity this week and all you can do is play your best and give the coaches something to think about when Rob is back and available again. When everyone is fit you just have to perform and put your hands up in the minutes that you do."

With Ulster's first European shots to be fired in just over three weeks' time at Bath, seizing the moment is key for Andrew to not only remind head coach Dan McFarland of his value in Friday night's Guinness PRO14 meeting with Cardiff Blues at Kingspan Stadium, but also show strong form with the Heineken Champions Cup lurking just around the corner.

"You really want to be playing in those big European games," said Andrew.

"And you want to be playing in these big home games like Cardiff this weekend.

"You just have to play well, but this season is an opportunity for Rob, myself and Adam to fight it out and try to get into those two matchday spots," he added with a longer-term view being aired.

As for their mini-tour of South Africa, the notion is mentioned that the humiliating defeat at the Cheetahs had a galvanising impact on the squad which could now be brought to bear on Friday evening against the Blues.

"The good thing about being away in South Africa was we were together straight after the Cheetahs game," Andrew explained.

"We were at the computers working out what went wrong to then bounce back against Kings."

Now that it's essentially three front-line hookers for two spots, Andrew is eager to get on and embrace the change.

Meanwhile, Michael Lowry will be sidelined for up to eight weeks after undergoing ankle surgery on returning from South Africa where he was involved in the Cheetahs game.

Rob Lyttle is also definitely out of Friday's match with a back issue.

Belfast Telegraph


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