Ulster are 'pumped' for Wasps arrival but keen to avoid more ref justice
For all of his 125 Ulster outings, pulling on the number two jersey in Europe has remained something of a rarity for Rob Herring.
An ever dependable deputy for Rory Best throughout his now five years in the province, when continental competition rolls around it has almost always been the Ireland and Ulster skipper who has gotten the nod.
There were starts for the Cape Town native against Oyonnax and Toulon, when for vastly differing reasons heavily rotated squads were used, and all the way back in 2013 for a double-header with Treviso when Best was nursing a broken arm but, by and large, the 27-year-old has had to bide his time come the Champions Cup.
It is understandable then, that ahead of being a part of the run on side when Wasps are welcomed to Kingspan Stadium on Friday night, the hooker is brimming with excitement.
"It's always extra special in this competition and we're lucky enough to be at home against a big European team," he says of a game Best will miss with a hamstring strain.
"We're really pumped for it. We've had some brilliant wins in this competition the last few years, Toulouse and Clermont here, but every game in Europe seems really memorable, even if it's getting tougher and tougher each year.
"It's a big game. We know how good they are, what they've done in the last few seasons. Me personally, I'm massively excited. I can't wait to kick it off and the boys are all the same.
"You could see the guys coming in on Monday morning, there was already massive excitement among the squad."
For the front-rowers at least, that feeling may well have given way to frustration when they sat down for the video review of last week's win over Connacht.
While Les Kiss's side came out on the right end of a 16-8 score to maintain an unbeaten home run against the westerners that stretches all the way back to 1960, Ulster's scrum will again have required a forensic analysis.
Having had their struggles with the referee in Zebre a week prior, it was a similar story with Munsterman Andy Brace's interpretation of the set-piece.
Two early free-kicks in quick succession hardly augured well, and it proved a running battle all night.
"It's something that we've tried to address," admitted Herring.
"The last two games it's been an issue. It's a small fix I think, but we felt we were pretty hard done by in a few of them.
"It's a case of reading the referee a bit better in those situations and responding to it. We had that early free-kick against us and maybe went into our shells a little bit.
"The way we respond, the way we react, the way we read the ref, that's important. We're a pretty good scrummaging side, we've shown that the last few years and at the start of this season.
"We're not going to panic. It's just managing it."
A Wasps front-row that included former Leinster prop Martin Moore earned a pair of scrum penalties for themselves against Saracens last weekend and, similar to La Rochelle who Ulster face in round two, will provide a real set-piece test.
With Ben Whitehouse, fresh from reffing the other Irish derby last weekend, in charge on Friday night, Herring will be looking to establish an early dialogue and, crucially, adapt as the game progresses.
"Over the last two weeks, it's been about balance pre-engagement," he said.
"The refs are really looking out for that now. We've got to paint him a better picture so that when we are dominant, we make it an easier decision.
"The way it's reffed now, it's hard. If you're dominant, it can become 50/50 so quickly on a ref's decision.
"We maybe just didn't adjust on the fly as well as we should have last week, that's something that, me personally, I was disappointed with. But we've looked at it and hopefully we can start learning from it.
"On our ball we want a solid platform but it can be a challenge to assert that dominance. We want to prove it each week, hopefully it comes at some stage. We've been frustrated but we can be better."
Friday's game will be the second time these teams have met at Kingspan in a matter of months, Dai Young's side having eased to a comfortable 26-15 win in pre-season game.
It was a result that, despite its billing as a warm-up fixture, seemed to cause an undue amount of consternation throughout the province, especially when coupled with an even more comprehensive humbling away to Northampton one week later.
Ulster though put poor summer results behind them to claim five of their first six league games, in stark contrast to injury-riddled Wasps who are winless since September 10.
With a host of internationals back in harness, neither side will bear much resemblance to those that trotted out that August evening, although Herring does concede the province can learn a few lessons from how they were carved open defensively by the visitors' outside backs.
"That was our first game, a first hit-out," he said, by way of an explanation.
"In terms of what Wasps can bring, we learned a little bit. In phase play they opened us up a few times and we weren't good enough.
"We can take what we can from that game but they're a different side now and so are we.
"You can see our progression throughout the season, I think we're getting better apart from that one slip-up (against Zebre).
"There's areas of our game that are improving week on week. For me, the stuff that the coaches are bringing through, you can see now.
"The team knows what's expected this season. We're moving in a positive direction."
This week, though, brings their biggest challenge yet.