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Rob Herring explains what he must improve to restore Ireland fortunes and how Ulster’s mindset has ‘shifted’


Ulster's game against Leinster has been rescheduled for during the Six Nations (INPHO/Bryan Keane)

Ulster's game against Leinster has been rescheduled for during the Six Nations (INPHO/Bryan Keane)

©INPHO/Bryan Keane

Ulster's game against Leinster has been rescheduled for during the Six Nations (INPHO/Bryan Keane)

Rob Herring has had to learn patience a lot recently, both for club and country.

At club level, he had to be patient in waiting for a win at the RDS Arena. He sat on the bench for the entire game the last time Ulster won there in 2013 and then it took them another eight years to pick up another victory — on that occasion, only a month ago, the South African-born hooker played the full 80.

But at international level, it has perhaps been harder to exhibit that patience after seeing his game time reduced significantly during last month’s Autumn Internationals.

Herring perhaps saw the writing on the wall when understudy Rónan Kelleher was called into the Lions squad over the summer rather than himself, a pecking order which would then translate onto the international scene, but there would have been a degree of frustration for the 31-year-old that, all of a sudden, Leinster’s Dan Sheehan seemingly supplanted him on the bench, too.

True, the one bench appearance Herring did get out of the three matches was in the game that mattered most against the All Blacks but, at the same time, players want to play, and it’s easy to forget that at the start of the year he was starting four of Ireland’s five Six Nations games, so dropping to third in the depth chart was bound to sting.

“I was maybe a little bit disappointed with my involvement in the autumn,” concedes Herring.

“I tried to regroup when I came back (to Ulster) and sort of refocus and see what I need to be doing better.

“There were aspects of my game that weren’t where they needed to be, things around my defence and collision area. I really wanted to offer more in attack and it’s something I’ve tried to address by going away and putting more emphasis on it.

“At the same time, I’m just enjoying my rugby at the moment and trying to improve those aspects all the time.

“I don’t look at what the other hookers are doing, it’s about me and what I can do.

“As soon as you start comparing yourself to others then you start to lose your way — I’ve just got to get back to what I do well.

“I had a chat with Faz (Ireland head coach Andy Farrell) and, for me, it was about wanting to add more of an influence on the pitch with my involvements, not just ticking boxes but having more of an impact in what I do. I had to accept that’s something I lacked going into the autumn.

“I’m always going to work hard and try to improve those things and I’m enjoying my rugby at the minute and hopefully that will continue.”

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If he wanted to make more of an impact, then what he did against the Northampton Saints last week will have left Farrell purring with delight, the hooker taking a short pop pass from Billy Burns, powering through two soft shoulders and over the line for an eye-catching try all inside the first two minutes of the game.

If he can produce more of those kinds of involvements in matches then that will go a long way to convincing the head coach that he deserves to be back in the mix for the big games, and doing it on stages such as in the Heineken Champions Cup or potentially in Sunday’s festive inter-pro against Connacht at Kingspan Stadium will only further his cause.

It’s only by doing that for his province that the international recognition will follow and, while a good performance is a good performance no matter when, where or for who it is produced, it does help when you are leading from the front in a team that is picking up important wins.

In that regard, Herring has been encouraged by what Ulster have been able to do over the last few weeks in claiming the scalps of Leinster and Clermont away, and then the Saints at home not just in the results themselves but also in the manner of them.

“Two wins from two in Europe, that’s the big plus there. The way we executed those wins as well,” says Ulster’s double-centurion, who won his 200th cap against Benetton earlier this season.

“There were times where we went up and the other team had their purple patch and there was no sort of panic or fall over or anything like that, we just went back to our jobs and what we do well and managed to put more pressure on them.

“The ups and downs in the games, we managed to overcome those and I just think we have a lot of confidence now. As forwards, we’re moving the ball around and we’re a bit more connected in our attack, and that’s really exciting.

“Even in the Clermont game, afterwards we were sitting there thinking we could have done better, could we have got five points out of that?

"I think that’s the mindset shift in the squad and where we’re going.”

That’s not something that has happened overnight, either. Herring has seen that mindset grow and evolve over multiple seasons and he believes that is a sign they are on the right path to success.

“I think over the last three, four years that’s been improving,” he insists.

“You saw last year we only lost a handful of games and our away form improved massively, so I think there’s been progression each year.

“We’ve still got a long way to go and it’s still early days but we’re heading in the right direction.”

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