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Ulster can be knock-out sensations, says hooker Rob Herring

 

By Jonathan Bradley

With the glorious distraction of the Six Nations now a thing of the past, Ulster's troubles come into sharper focus this weekend as the province begin the business end of their season with a trip to Cardiff.

With the seventh best record in a 14-team championship, Ulster's performances have straddled the line between average and mediocre this season, while off-field strife continues to dog the province.

With five games remaining, starting at the Arms Park tomorrow (3.15pm kick-off), Jono Gibbes' side have an outside shot of chasing down Edinburgh for a place in the end of season play-offs, but are still stuck in a battle with Benetton to ensure they play Champions Cup rugby.

"We have a responsibility to the fans and ourselves," said hooker Rob Herring of what can be expected over the final furlongs.

"What has happened up to now has happened but we still believe we can get to the knock-out stages, we still believe we deserve to be there.

"We're not sitting where we need to be. Edinburgh beating Munster (last week) puts them up there again. But I keep saying it, we can't be worried about what results are going what way elsewhere.

"We believe in what we are doing, we are working hard. Ultimately if we don't (aim for) the knock-out stages, then what are we doing here? That is obviously our focus now before the end of the season."

The lurking presence of the Italians, just six points behind, though means that the mantra of only looking up can't apply here. With Kieran Crowley's side playing the PRO14's three worst performing sides in their last four games, they are on an upward curve and a win against Southern Kings tomorrow would make for uncomfortable viewing, especially if Ulster have faltered in the Welsh capital.

"They're going well," Herring admitted. "To be fair, they've been going well all season, they've been involved in close games and are playing a good brand of rugby. "

For Herring, getting a game has been something of a rarity of late thanks to injuries, postponements and the international break. The 27-year-old has started only once since the New Year's Day win over Munster - and in that game, against Edinburgh, he had to depart with an elbow injury - having displayed such strong form over the season's early months that he won his second and third Ireland caps in November.

"Since the New Year, personally I've not really played much rugby," he noted. "Even as a team, it has been so stop-start, so we're looking forward to getting back to it this weekend.

"Obviously as a team it kind of rubs onto you individually when it hasn't gone the way you wanted but personally up until the New Year I was enjoying the season.

"I guess you get to the end of January and we were one game away from qualifying for a home quarter-final in Europe and still top three in the PRO14.

"Even though we were not playing the way we would like, we were still in the mix.

"But the last two games we played weren't great for us as we have slipped down the table. All we can do now is control what we are able to control, get to work every day and prep and start working on the good habits and prepare for this big run-in for us."

The quest for personal game-time may not get any easier for Herring soon though, not with the presence of the returning Rory Best.

The indefatigable 35-year-old hooker is unlikely to play against Cardiff tomorrow but will be back for the four-game sprint to the line having led Ireland to just their third ever Grand Slam title over the past two months.

With Best and Herring's contracts at Ulster having always run in tandem, the Cape Town native could be forgiven for wondering just when Best will hang up his boots after he this week signed a new deal up until the end of the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

"Hopefully this is his last contract," joked Herring with tongue in cheek. "I obviously knew it was coming for a while. I know we are in the same position but I'm genuinely happy.

"So much of what we do in Ulster is around him. He's been there and done that but he still comes in and sets standards and that's a big inspiration for me on how he carries himself even at this stage of his experienced life.

"Obviously, it's a big battle between him and myself. He's out there, he's Irish captain and I want to be there at some stage."

It was a similar story with Ireland of late, where an elbow injury and lack of game-time meant he spent the Grand Slam behind Best and Sean Cronin.

"There were times when it was tough," he added. "I tried to learn as much as I could and help them prep. It was still great to be a part of it. It's a bit of history but I would have liked to play."

Cardiff Blues vs Ulster

Guinness PRO14 Championship

Cardiff Arms Park, Saturday, 3.15pm

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