Extra confidence can help Rob Herring seize his big World Cup chance after last near miss
Ulster hooker Rob Herring has already experienced the pain of missing out on a World Cup place and will be out to stake a claim for a spot in the travelling party to Japan when Ireland take on Italy at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow (2pm kick-off).
The seven-times capped 29-year-old - born in Cape Town but with an Irish grandparent - was part of the wider squad four years ago, some 12 months on from making his Test debut in Argentina.
Then, he was the odd man out with Rory Best, Sean Cronin and Richardt Strauss claiming the three hooking berths making the short trip to England and Wales. Once again four into three won't go with himself, Best and Cronin this time joined by Niall Scannell in the preparations.
It will be Herring, though, who gets the first crack at game-time, starting tomorrow in a front-row that also includes Jack McGrath and Andrew Porter.
"The last World Cup, I was part of the pre-World Cup squad and didn't manage to get on the plane so the way that ended, I want to try and go one step further this year," he said at yesterday's team announcement.
"The last World Cup I just felt kind of lucky to be in the pre-season squad but this year I'm a lot more motivated to play a big part in this team and to help us achieve something we haven't achieved before.
"So I'm a lot more confident as a player, a lot more experienced and hopefully I can just do my bit to help the team.
"There's been a good block of pre-season work, we've had to work hard and to be fair to all the boys in the squad there's been a lot of good effort put in.
"It's good to get the opportunity first up and get involved in the games and it's something we're really looking forward to."
In reality, with squad captain Best a shoo-in for inclusion, the remaining hookers know they're essentially battling for two spots. The reality of life behind Best has been long-standing for Herring, who has often excelled at Kingspan Stadium but found himself back on the bench behind the retiring skipper for the biggest of games.
Next season at least, he should finally be able to call the number two jersey his own.
"Sean only has it with Ireland, but I have it at Ulster as well," he joked of Best's other long-serving back-up.
"But it's something we're all pretty used to, over the last four years it's pretty much been us four hookers being repped in and out in the various squads.
"Look, it's a very competitive position, I'm aware of that and the other hookers are as well.
"Ultimately, that's what you want. We're all driving each other, driving the standards and I think this eight-week block will see us improve because we're all driving each other on. We know how competitive the position is."
Ireland have not lost a pool game at the World Cup since 2007, yet their form in the warm-ups has been mixed at best. In 2011, they lost all their pre-tournament fixtures, while last time around it was a two wins and two losses split including a poor showing at Twickenham in the final tune-up. Despite history indicating that the result matters little, Herring believes it is important for those pulling on the jersey to give a good account of the work the entire panel has put in during what has been a long block of pre-season.
"There is a lot at stake. Particularly as a squad I think we've all worked really hard and we're the guys who are the lucky ones, who are representing that kind of work we've had in pre-season. We just want to lay a good platform that we can bounce off going forward. I know people say these are trial games but what we value as a squad is the work rate you provide and trying to make things easier for other people and to make the team get better.
"So personally on that level, I just want to be able to do my job. My set-piece has to be strong and then just anything around the park that I can make things easier for the other players around me.
"That's valued highly as a team so I think a lot of the boys will be just looking to put in a good team performance and the individual things will come from that.
"We've moved on quite a bit since four years ago as a squad. We've become a lot more consistent and the squad depth is there now. Last time we lost a few key guys before the quarter-final and it probably showed.
"I think if you look at the squad now and the way we've all been kind of mixed and matched throughout the last four years, there's a bit more confidence, certainly in the depth and through all the players that are currently here, so that's probably one of the learnings that we take from the last World Cup."
With just 43 days to Ireland's Pool A opener with Scotland, tomorrow's game could see two debutants for Joe Schmidt's side. Jean Kleyn, Munster's South African-born lock, qualified for Ireland on residency yesterday and will start alongside Devin Toner in the engine room. His Thomond Park colleague Mike Haley, meanwhile, is on the subs bench and in line for a first cap as a replacement.
Herring, Jordi Murphy and new signing Jack McGrath provide the Ulster representation in the side, while Iain Henderson is on the bench.
Star Italy full-back Matteo Minozzi has been named on the bench, after a year out with an ACL injury, where he is joined by former Leinster and Ireland under-20's out-half Ian McKinley.
Ireland team to face Italy J Larmour; A Conway, G Ringrose, C Farrell, D Kearney; J Carbery, L McGrath; J McGrath, R Herring, A Porter, D Toner, J Kleyn; R Ruddock (capt), T O'Donnell, J Murphy. Bench: N Scannell, C Healy, J Ryan, I Henderson, T Beirne, K Marmion, J Carty, M Haley.