Ulster's Rob Herring will fight for a place on Irish tour to his native South Africa
After appearing to have missed out on a second cap during Ireland's stuttering Six Nations campaign, Rob Herring is targeting a strong finish to the season with Ulster and a spot on the national side's summer tour to his South African homeland.
The 25-year-old was one of four hookers called into Joe Schmidt's original squad for the championship but suffered a hamstring strain in training and, after only making his return to action for Ulster in Friday night's win over Zebre, he was not one of the 35 men summoned to Carton House for the final two games against Italy and Scotland.
In a rich vein of form for much of this season, Herring - who has been invaluable to his province as both a back-up hooker and stand-in captain during the absence of Rory Best - seemed well placed to add to the solitary cap he won on the 2014 tour to Argentina this spring but admits his strained hamstring probably came at the most inopportune of moments.
"I think I picked the wrong time to get the injury," he said.
"That's the most frustrating thing; I thought I was maybe pushing for a spot (on Ireland's bench).
"I thought I was playing okay and then just to get that put a bit of a downer on it. I've taken the positives out of it though.
"I've been in the gym for the last two weeks and got to look after a few other minor injuries that I've been carrying. I feel fresh."
Still, not being given the nod in the No.16 jersey before the injury was a disappointment, but the Cape Town native was told by Schmidt that continuing his progress will lead to more caps in the future.
"I think it's a tough one," Herring said. "As a player down there I always feel like I can add something, not just when the team is misfiring a bit.
"He's (Schmidt) just said to keep on going.
"He spoke to myself and Richardt Strauss after the Wales game and just said 'you're playing really well, you just have to keep on doing what you're doing and the opportunity will come your way'.
"That's exactly what I'm going to do."
Barring injury to others, it now looks like that opportunity will not arrive until Ireland's three-game tour to South Africa in June at the earliest and Herring says it would be a dream to go head-to-head with a Springboks side that he grew up supporting.
"I'd love to be at that tour," he admitted. "To go back to South Africa and play against them, with all my family there, all my friends, it's been a massive goal of mine since the tour was announced.
"I've really bought into the Irish culture and the Northern Irish culture. It's a massive honour to be selected and it's something I'll be really proud to do.
"Like I said, all I can do is play well here and hopefully that's enough."
Now enjoying a break until Ulster's PRO12 season resumes away to Glasgow on March 25, Herring feels last weekend's 32-0 win over Zebre - after Les Kiss' men had lost their previous two games -was a necessary positive at the end of a 16-week run of games.
Having given the hamstring an early test in the victory, he was pleased to see his side's defence improving.
"It was good to get back," the former London Irish man added.
"We have high standards for our defence. We're one of the top defensive sides in this league.
"It's not even the last two weeks, it's the last month when we haven't been as good as we would have liked. It's a big focus for us to keep things tight and work hard for each other.
"It was a good outcome for us and a nice way to end the block. There are still things we can improve on.
"Hopefully the players get refreshed now and we'll come back next week, work on them and be better for it."