As Milly Herring trotted happily across the Kingspan Stadium turf and into the waiting arms of her doting grandfather on Friday night, it was impossible not to think of how the family would have been denied so many such moments over the past year and a half.
Gathered to celebrate Rob Herring’s 200th Ulster outing in the win over Benetton, the clan congregated in one corner of the stadium after the game, laughing happily as the toddler born last April stole the microphone from her Irish international father during his post-match interview to offer her own measured reflections on proceedings.
"Hiyaaaa,” she giggled to all those watching the northern province’s third win in succession at home on television.
After well over a year of empty stadiums, of debuts and milestones played out in front of no friends or family, the vignette offered encouragement that normality, slowly but surely, is returning.
For Herring, kept apart from his family back in South Africa throughout the pandemic, becoming just the seventh man to pull on the white jersey of his adopted province so many times felt all the more special for having those closest to him around to share in the occasion.
"It's been tough at times having our families away from us and not able to come over,” the 31-year-old reflected. “So to have them back for what was a really special day, I wouldn't have had it any other way.
“It just topped it off. It'll be a great memory that I'll look back on and it's something I'll always cherish.”
For any player to reach a double-century of club outings in such an attritional sport can be viewed as somewhat remarkable. For Herring though, the feat has required an even more unlikely confluence of events.
Irish-qualified through ancestry, he had caught the attention of both Ulster and Connacht shortly after some eye-catching displays in the Varsity Cup back home. Committed to studying, and having already had a crack at pro rugby in the London Irish system, he took the bold decision to eschew two-year offers in favour of a short-term deal.
"(At times like this) you reflect on the last nine years,” he said. “I came here on a seven-month trial initially and things just went from one thing to the next, it's been a pretty incredible journey.
"A lot has changed since I arrived. I've got married, I've had a kid, it's that sort of journey of life and to be able to do that alongside playing rugby, it's been special.
"There have been ups and downs, but more ups than downs, which is a good thing and I've thoroughly enjoyed it all and that's why I want to keep going for as long as I can.”
He won’t have to keep going for too much longer to centre in on Ulster’s all-time appearance record, presently held jointly by Andrew Trimble and Darren Cave on 229.
While Cave teasingly sent a message during the week warning his former team-mate, who is still only 31-years-old, to slow down, it would be no surprise to see him establish a new mark as early as next season.
Should he do so, it will be testament to his perseverance after years spent concurrently as one of the best hookers in the league and Rory Best’s under-study. While now Ulster’s undisputed first-choice number two, and a starter in nine of Ireland’s last ten Six Nations contests, there were times he naturally must have debated whether his career was best served in Belfast.
"There were times in and around that period when it was really tough,” he admitted. "I was at a time when I felt really ready to kick on and get more starts, particularly in the big European games and more Irish caps.
"But when you have someone like Rory ahead of you, and he'd just been named Irish captain, it was definitely tough but I just had to keep working.
"It was difficult but, now, I'm really glad that I stuck it out, that I didn't take what might have been the easier option and move on to a different club.
"I think I made the right decision and I'm reaping the benefits now over the last couple of years.
"The challenge is now how long I can keep playing at the high international level and keep pushing myself with Ulster.”
While Ireland will soon come back into focus with the Autumn Internationals now less than a month away, this week will bring a first visit to Kingspan Stadium from one of the new South African sides.
Excited by the prospect of playing against sides from his homeland – Herring grew up a big Stormers fan back in Cape Town – he believes the Lions who provide this week’s opposition and the rest are eventually going to raise standards
"It might take some time for teams to find their feet but there's top class talents in the sides and it'll be a massive challenge for everyone going forward,” he said. “It will definitely add to the competition.”