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'Ulster expects': How province have progressed ahead of another European crunch date against English opposition, explains Rob Herring

 

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Front foot: Rob Herring is relishing his role as Ulster’s starting hooker

Front foot: Rob Herring is relishing his role as Ulster’s starting hooker

�INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Front foot: Rob Herring is relishing his role as Ulster’s starting hooker

For the third season in succession, Ulster's Champions Cup fate comes down to a crunch tie with an English side in round six; the visit to Wasps in 2018, last year's trip to Leicester Tigers, and now tomorrow's welcoming of Bath to Kingspan Stadium (3.15pm kick-off).

Hooker Rob Herring was involved in both of those previous deciding clashes - one successful, one far from it - and will be again this weekend.

For all the similarities in the scenarios, he believes Ulster are a very different team now to the one that surrendered so meekly in the Ricoh Arena two seasons ago and even the one that pulled a result out of the bag at Welford Road this time last year.

"Where we want to go as a club, playing knockout rugby is everything for us," said the 29-year-old. "In the past, we would go into a European campaign thinking if we made the knockouts, that's a good season. Now, as a squad, we're expecting to be there, and anything less isn't good enough.

"To be in a position to do that, last game of the pool stages with our fate in our own hands, it's pretty exciting. We'd have loved to have won (against Clermont last week) and be playing for a home quarter-final but it wasn't to be. We've to put that aside and look to a big game this weekend.

"We did the review and there were a few hard truths, but we've had to put that aside because we've another big game this weekend.

"To come into the last round and still have a knockout place in our own hands is still a great place to be, particularly at home, and that's massively exciting for us."

Beat their already eliminated opponents and Ulster will end the day knowing, at worst, they'll be sixth seeds for the quarters, their best outcome since going six from six through the pool in 2013-14. Should an unlikely series of results go their way, they could yet even end up hosting a last-eight tie.

"I think it probably is still mathematically possible to get a home quarter, but our heads are first to get the win," Herring said of the possibility of Clermont slipping up against Harlequins.

"From there, you never know what happens, we start putting a bit more pressure on, but just to get the win at home and into the quarters is a massive focus.

"I think when Dan (McFarland) came in he made it pretty clear what his vision for us was as a club and a group - consistently competing for championships.

"That ultimately means playing in knockout rugby. We come in every day and we have our processes, our skills, our units, it's all geared towards moving forward as a squad.

"Last weekend, going away to one of the toughest places in Europe to play and not taking the chances we had shows we're still on a bit of a journey.

"We still have a lot to improve upon and learn to be exactly where we want to be."

Herring, at least, finally has the jersey he wants to be in, Rory Best's retirement after the World Cup meaning the Cape Town native can finally be sure of a starting spot when these big games roll around.

Tomorrow will already mark his 14th start of the season, the same tally he managed in the entirety of each of the past two campaigns. Crucially, it will be his sixth start in the Champions Cup. Due to the considerable roadblock of the Ulster and Ireland skipper, he'd made just eight in his career coming into 2019-20.

"I've always felt I've been good enough to play that role, particularly in the last three or four years I've felt I've been of that standard, and selection just hasn't gone my way," he said of his long-running battle with Best. "Now that I'm getting those calls and getting that bit of a run, I'm really enjoying it.

"There's another level of expectation on myself now to really step up. I'm one of the more senior guys in the squad, so (there's expectation) to carry that and really help some of the younger guys.

"I'm really enjoying that role and the amount of game time I'm getting, it's been really good."

Named in the Six Nations squad by Andy Farrell on Wednesday, the next goal is to do likewise for Ireland.

Herring had the shortest time in Japan of any player. Called up just prior to the quarter-final defeat to cover for the injured Sean Cronin, he arrived only in time for one training session and then the match build-up before Ireland's exit meant it was time to head for home.

With Best naturally out of the reckoning, there were some eyebrows raised when Cronin and Munster's Niall Scannell were omitted from Farrell's first squad too. In their place come the uncapped youngster Ronan Kelleher and Connacht's 28-year-old Dave Heffernan, whose only previous time in the green jersey came against the USA in the summer of 2017.

With eight caps and just three starts to his name, Herring is all of a sudden the most experienced hooker in the panel for the opening round against Scotland in Dublin on February 1.

Called in for Six Nations prep before, the Ulsterman has never before seen the field in the competition, although six of those caps have come against Tier One opposition.

With Kelleher having been injured and, his side's recent line-out struggles aside, Herring in good form, the next few weeks are a real opportunity to begin Ireland's post-Best era in the starter's jersey.

"I think I've given it my best shot," he said. "It's been a bit different this season, in past seasons I mightn't have had as much game time in the big European games, and this season I've had a bit of a run at that.

"I've been happy with the work I've been putting in and the way I've been playing, it's up to the coaches how they're going to go about selection.

"From my point of view, as long as I know I'm rocking up every day and trying to put my best foot forward, I'm trying to learn, trying to improve, that's all I can do and all I can control."

First things first, securing Ulster's place in the last-eight of Europe for a second season in succession.

"(Bath) have nothing to play for, but what they do have is an important run of games in the Premiership, and I feel like they maybe rested a few players last week, so they're going to come fully loaded," Herring said.

"A fully loaded Bath side is full of stars and players who can attack from anywhere."

Still, as Herring notes, for the first time in a while, Ulster expects.

Belfast Telegraph