It feels so special to reach 150 Ulster caps, says Rob Herring
With Roger Wilson and Tommy Bowe coming back to their native province after spells away in the summer of 2012, and the side having gone all the way to the previous season's Heineken Cup final, the arrival of a young hooker from Western Force went somewhat under the radar some six and a half years ago.
Few would have predicted then that Rob Herring would be pulling on the Ulster jersey for the 150th time against Cardiff Blues today (3pm kick-off) .
He'd already spent time in the London Irish Academy by the time Ulster's then Director of Rugby David Humphreys brought him over for a seven-month look.
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Upon arrival, he was not just behind Rory Best, but Niall Annett and Nigel Brady too. And yet the 28-year-old has never left, becoming both an integral member of the provincial set-up and an Irish international since that first pre-season.
"I moved here when I was 22 and I don't have any intentions to go home at the moment," he said of his adopted side.
"I think definitely it's a club I'm really proud to play for. I recognise that it's a massive privilege every time I pull on that jersey. The players and the people of this province, what it represents, it's something that grows with you since I've come here.
"(150 caps) snuck up on me a little bit. I've really enjoyed my seven seasons here.
"It's massively special to get to 150 but it's a massive privilege every time, especially at home. It's something I always look forward to."
He's had to wait a little while to make the jump from 149 to 150, his last outing for Dan McFarland's side coming almost a month ago against Benetton.
That delay is the product of his involvement in the Ireland panel for the autumn internationals.
Herring came off the bench last week against the USA for his only outing of the November series but a World Cup spot remains an obvious target. Having had to wait three years between his first and second caps, he's been picked by Joe Schmidt six times over the past 55 weeks.
While naturally he would have liked to have been involved in the bigger clashes with Argentina and the All Blacks, he knows that thanks to injury he was starting from a disadvantage when compared to Best, Niall Scannell and Sean Cronin.
"Joe called me before the series and said I hadn't had much game time with the injury and that I'd hopefully get a shot at the USA," he said.
"It was good to be involved. It was a massively successful autumn series for the boys, to play a small part in that was great and to have the chance to stick my hand up for the next block of games in the Six Nations too. It was great."
With Herring getting the start for Ulster today, John Cooney, Jordi Murphy and Stuart McCloskey all also in the run-on side and Rory Best and Jacob Stockdale held in reserve on the bench, there is a real injection of experience and talent to the side beaten comfortably by Scarlets a week before.
There will be a weight of responsibility too of course but Herring says the Test contingent are aware of the expectation.
"We had a small chat about it as a group," he said. "This next block is massively important. You can say about what you learned in camp, but it's more about bringing in a new energy level to the group.
"There's a few leaders coming back and hopefully we can add to that a bit. We just have to do what we do well and try and fit into the Ulster side again."
Last week's loss to Scarlets, which saw Ulster fall to third in the PRO14's Conference B entering this weekend's round of games, was an example of what the internationals will be expected to bring to the side, the performance containing far too many errors for the liking of McFarland.
"I was in the review and we didn't build enough pressure," reflected Herring. "We gave away silly penalties and we didn't recognise early enough that we weren't getting anything from our jackals, the ref wasn't giving much there.
"I think we still committed to the rucks too much. Every time we exited, we'd defend well and then give away a penalty on our exits.
"We just put pressure on ourselves through small errors or lack of discipline. That's something we've looked at and have to do better this week."
With the likes of Herring back in harness, the side are facing into a key run.
The Cardiff game is the second of 10 consecutive game weekends, with the next two Fridays bringing away and home games against Scarlets in Champions Cup action.
There is barely time to pause for breath before the festive inter-pros arrive - Ulster will face Munster at home before making trips to Galway and Dublin - after which it will be back into the concluding rounds of Europe.
A potentially defining section of the season, Herring offers the reminder that the more good work done now, the less pressure comes at the season's end.
"I think if you look at the league now, we need to start kicking on and pushing for those first two spots," he said.
"We have Cardiff this week, back-to-back clashes with Scarlets and then into the inter-pros. It's setting us up for the end of the season if you start to push on.
"If you look at Ulster in recent seasons, we've always left it late and needing to win our last five or something like that. Obviously we need to take it game by game but we have to recognise how important this block is and hopefully in eight weeks' time we come out looking pretty strong.