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Ulster's young stars are leading the way with driving ambition, reveals Herring

No rest: Rob Herring and Ulster have high expectations ahead of tomorrow's clash with Benetton at Kingspan Stadium
No rest: Rob Herring and Ulster have high expectations ahead of tomorrow's clash with Benetton at Kingspan Stadium

By Michael Sadlier

Though there is no easy way to conceal the upbeat mood from last weekend, the overriding feeling is that much more has to be achieved.

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Securing Champions Cup qualification was last week's happening. Now, it's another week and this one is all about managing to turn things around in the Guinness PRO14.

Having lost three of their last five PRO14 games is certainly nothing to celebrate and the joy seen at Welford Road has been quickly packed away for what is a pretty critical-looking lash with Benetton tomorrow night in Belfast.

Ulster have slipped to fifth in the table and are now two points behind Benetton in third. Failure to arrest this decline - losing at both Connacht and Leinster over the festive period meant shipping unwanted damage - will have serious implications for Ulster's knockout hopes in both the league and for next season's European prospects.

Ulster hooker Rob Herring is certainly for moving on after ticking the box regarding making the European quarter-finals for the first time since 2014, when he actually played most of that day's controversial defeat with Saracens at Kingspan Stadium after Rory Best limped off early.

Even lingering over last weekend's narrow result at Leicester Tigers isn't to be pored over and not only due to Ulster having to quickly recalibrate for Benetton - who may be severely weakened for this game due to Italy call-ups - but also because the 28-year-old came on to play out the last 16 minutes of the game as a flanker when Sean Reidy left injured.

It brought back memories of his first Ireland cap in Argentina back in the summer of 2014 when he arrived very late in the game to see out time while being re-routed to the back row.

Last weekend, though, was longer than he would have wanted to be playing out of position but his presence was necessary as Nick Timoney was covering the back-row from early enough due to Marcell Coetzee's injury and Iain Henderson couldn't shift to six as Kieran Treadwell had already gone off.

"I was eight on the defensive scrums, six in attacking lineouts and seven on defensive lineouts, so it was all a bit of a blur really," says Herring, who last week also had to deal with being left out of Joe Schmidt's expanded Ireland squad for the start of the Six Nations.

"It (winning, though as things turned out they didn't need to be victorious to qualify) was a big occasion for this group of players.

"It was a really proud moment in the changing room afterwards," added the Cape Town native, who won his seventh Ireland cap last November when coming off the bench against the United States and was name-checked by Schmidt last week as being unlucky to miss out on the Irish squad.

But that was then. Herring quickly parks it and talks only in the here and now which means functioning without the safety net of Ulster's players who are away on Ireland duty.

"I think throughout the squad the guys know what this game is and how important it is to us in the bigger scheme of things," says Herring who also played, and scored, in the narrow win at Benetton back in November.

While acknowledging that Ulster have, in the past, perhaps struggled to maintain momentum during periods in and around international windows, Herring, as part of the squad's leadership group, knows the onus now is on keeping up the level of performance which has been seen in Europe over the previous two games.

And with a number of younger players seemingly coming on board for tomorrow night, there has been discussion of what will be required from their last game for three weeks.

"This is the first game in a massive block of PRO14 games for us and we have to start putting in good performances in the PRO14 to climb that ladder," states Herring.

"Interestingly enough we've had a couple of conversations as a group and it's actually the younger boys who are bringing it out that we have to step up now and make sure that the levels are the same.

"I think coming from the younger guys it's brilliant.

"They understand and know now how important this game is, especially how important it also is to wear the jersey.

"If you're not going to go out there and fight for the jersey, and fight for your place, then Dan's not going to pick you."

There has been some chat before about the change in culture which McFarland has been keen to foster in the squad and Herring readily buys into this notion when it comes to what has to be done tomorrow.

"We don't talk about holding the jersey for someone, it's just really about trying to take the jersey and making it your own," says the 156-times capped Ulster player.

"A few boys are now going to get an opportunity (tomorrow) and I think that with the culture that we're trying to build here now, there is an expectation on the guys coming in.

"We still have a long way to go and you'll have heard Dan talking about putting the building blocks in place.

"But if we can go out there and fight for the jersey, play with pride and really scrap for every win, then that's all you can ask for. But we're going have to be good this week."

Spoken like a true leader.

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