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Why South Africa trip is a nice change for Ulster's local tour-guide Wiehahn Herbst

 

By Adam McKendry

Bloemfontein isn't quite home for Wiehahn Herbst, but when put into context he's not a million miles away from his birthplace.

Having grown up in Klerksdorp, some 187 miles north of Bloemfontein and two-and-a-half hours away by car, to say they're side by side wouldn't really be right. But, in terms of vast South Africa as a whole, the two cities are practically neighbours.

So as far as local knowledge goes, Herbst is it.

"I would have been here a few times, it's always been a good city for me, I really like Bloemfontein a lot. It's nice for us to come here," the prop says.

Having made the move over to Ulster in 2014, Herbst had effectively closed the door to South African rugby, electing instead to qualify for Ireland through residency.

Of course, back then the notion of the two rugby hemispheres merging wasn't even a thought, meaning the possibility of playing rugby in his native land was remote.

But, four years down the line, this is Herbst's second tour to South Africa with his adopted province, having taken on the Kings last season, and the 30-year old is delighted he's able to have the opportunity in the Guinness PRO14.

"I never thought I was going to be at a club in Northern Ireland and then come to play against fellow South African teams in South Africa, so it's been a nice change," the former Sharks man smiles.

"All the South African guys really like it and it's a chance to see family and friends that are close by."

Herbst is one of four South Africans on tour - along with Rob Herring, Marcell Coetzee and Jean Deysel - while centre Angus Curtis also has links to the country.

However, while Herring and Coetzee both had family at the win in Port Elizabeth last Sunday, and Coetzee and Deysel's families will be in Bloemfontein, unfortunately for Herbst, this time it just won't work out for his kin.

"It's a little bit too far," he laments. "I would have loved to see the family here but unfortunately not. Maybe next time."

For someone who spent four years playing in Super Rugby with the Sharks - who also had a certain pair named Coetzee and Deysel on the books at the same time - the travel aspect of the game is not something unfamiliar to Herbst.

The painstaking trips halfway across the world to Australia and New Zealand are still fresh in his memory, with the journey from Dublin to Johannesburg small fry in comparison.

But it also gives him a fresh perspective on how these trips can help the players bond when away for so long together, particularly with Ulster's young squad.

The likes of Eric O'Sullivan and Angus Kernohan are still in the Academy, Adam McBurney, Tom O'Toole, Nick Timoney, Jonny Stewart and Angus Curtis are all recent graduates, while even guys like Billy Burns, Henry Speight and Will Addison are all still fresh faces on the squad list.

So, as the experienced prop explains, this is a good chance for them to get to know the young guys a bit better and improve that squad chemistry right at the start of the new season.

"I think it's good, you get a lot of time to get to know each other in different ways and in a different environment, especially around the fire in the evening everyone is sitting around talking and getting to know each together and learn from each other a bit more," Herbst reveals.

However, away from the campfire, Ulster have a job to do, and they are focusing on maintaining their 100% record in the PRO14 so far this season when they come up against a misfiring Cheetahs side.

The hosts have been taking on water so far this campaign, failing to live up to the lofty expectations their play-off run last year suggested they could attain this time around.

With 136 points conceded in three hefty losses to Munster, the Ospreys and Glasgow Warriors, things have not been rosy in the Free State of late, not helped by their turbulent off-season.

Losing 13 players - including the key trio of Tom Botha, Uzair Cassiem and Clayton Blommetjies - as well as director of rugby Rory Duncan has destabilised a side who are now having to reassess and rebuild their young squad into challengers once more.

While at the start of the season this game perhaps wouldn't have been seen as a definite four points, arguably the South Africans' slow start to the new campaign has shifted the goalposts.

But, despite their losses over the summer and their horrendous start to the new campaign, Herbst still thinks that there is enough in the Cheetahs' squad to cause Ulster plenty of problems at the Toyota Stadium tonight.

"It'll be an interesting game, they're always a class side when they're at home. They take pride in their home ground advantage," Herbst insists.

"It'll definitely be a good match, and at altitude when they start throwing the ball around it'll be a tough one.

"That's tough for any team that comes here, they're not used to the altitude and then the Cheetahs play that expansive rugby.

"But we're well prepared, so hopefully we can do the job on the night."

For a Klerksdorp man who grew up only just down the road from Bloemfontein - in a manner of speaking - tonight will be a homecoming of sorts.

His family may not be able to make it, but for Herbst, he's just delighted to be given the chance to play back where his career began.

"It's a great opportunity for me to be back on home soil and play against a fellow South African team, so I'm looking forward to taking to the field with the Ulster team and playing against them," he grins.

Match verdict: Ulster

Two sides going through a transition period, but Ulster are handling theirs a lot better than their South African hosts, whose squad lacks leadership and confidence. While the loss of John Cooney is a massive one, Dave Shanahan coped well against the Kings last weekend and can firmly establish himself as the No.2 scrum-half with a strong performance, and that should lead Ulster to the win and four from four.

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