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Dublin: 5 °C Wednesday 27 March, 2019
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This Ireland international front row hits the west coast waves to clear his mind

Ulster’s back-up hooker wants to be more than just Rory Best’s apprentice.

BETWEEN THE HARSH low light and long cold nights of an Irish mid winter, the scene described by Ulster’s hooker feels like the very definition of idyllic.

A surfer straddles his board in a September swell off the coast of Bundoran, or Strandhill. The water is cooling his muscles down after a morning of training, the sea clears his head of the pressures of competition and professional sport.

Source: Instagram - robertherring

He’s a little over six foot, a little over 100 kilos, probably not the ideal shape for a surfer, but pretty much perfect for a pro rugby player.

Rob Herring was born into surfing, but not into Ireland. Yet since arriving to Ulster in 2012 he has been able to embrace both.

He sits in front of a huddle of journalists, fielding questions with friendly, amicable responses and you can hear the first real sense of a change in Herring’s accent. The elongated ‘a’ and bullet point consonants are slowly melting out of his speech, replaced bit by bit, phrase by phrase, by a lyrical Antrim lilt.

He laughs slightly when asked how similar he is to Rory Best; captain, leader, starting hooker, farmer. He might seek to emulate the first three elements, but the latter? Off-field hard labour is way off the mark.

“I’m not a farmer,” comes the bashful explanation from the 25-year-old, “I wouldn’t say a city boy, I lived sort of in the suburbs of Cape Town. So I surfed quite a bit growing up, played quite a bit of sports too — water polo, athletics, squash, but mostly my surfing and bodyboarding.”

The mix of sports, core fitness and innate balance made Herring an athlete worth recruiting. At 19, he left Cape Town, travelling north to join London Irish’s academy and he managed three appearances for the Exiles before moving to Ulster – via a sojourn back home.

Nowadays, Belfast is home and he has even worn a path to the north Atlantic coastline, having fallen in love with the waves a little (just 10,000 kilometers or so) further south.

He balks at the idea of putting himself through one of Europe’s biggest waves: ”Mullaghmore? No I wouldn’t be going there!” Instead he tries to make the most of his afternoons off in September and October, hopping into the board-strapped car and heading on a two to three-hour drive across the province and the border to dip his toe in the water.

Source: Instagram - robertherring

Herring recoils laughing again with a query about The Beach Boys. Being born in 1990 means Pet Sounds is far from a natural inclusion in his workout shuffle, though if one of the elder statesmen in the Ulster dressing room were brave enough to request it, he’d more than likely oblige.

“No Beach Boys,  I listen to a wide range of things. I’m usually the guy doing DJ in the gym and before games and stuff. I kind of play a bit of everything to suit everyone’s needs.”

Since his arrival, Herring has quietly and efficiently made his name, made himself a safe pair of hands to pick up the baton whenever the team’s spiritual leader needs a rest or is called away to Team Ireland.

The hooker is dutiful in his role, but he won’t be content to sit behind Best for too much longer. He already has a full Test cap for his adopted nation and has recently extended his commitment to Ulster by two years. By the time that’s over, he wants to be Ireland’s starting hooker with still a year to run before his 29th birthday or the 2019 World Cup.

Having missed out on the World Cup squad last year, that seems like a lofty ambition when he first presents it. Herring, though, is comfortable staking his claim.  Best is 33, the age Sean Cronin will be when Japan 2019 comes around. Richardt Strauss is about to turn 30 too while Mike Sherry will hope to put his recent injury woes behind him and compete for the front row slot while he is still the right side of 30.

Herring’s timing may just be spot on.

I’m an ambitious guy and I know it’s a tough task having Rory ahead of me, but hopefully the two of us together can be pushing for those spots in the Ireland team.”

“That’s definitely the goal for me; over the next four years to be the first choice hooker in Ireland and to be hopefully playing regularly over the next four years as well.”

Source: Instagram - robertherring

His immediate future pits Herring against the man who is favourite to be captain of Ireland. However, the Cape Town kid is balanced in more than just a surfing sense. He speaks about Best as a mentor rather than an oppressor and a leader who players in either Ulster or Ireland camp would be happy to fall in behind.

“He speaks to the guys really well and the guys can relate to the way he speaks, but the most important thing  is that he has the respect players before he goes out on the pitch.

Don’t get me wrong, he has a few times when he shouts at the boys, but he wouldn’t be the loudest shouter. He speaks firmly and gets his message across  pretty clearly. Like I said, the guys have respect for what he’s achieved; he almost never has a bad game.”

He adds: “I knew when Rory came back from the World Cup he’d be looking to start. The only thing I can do is keep playing the best I can, put in a few good performances and put a bit of pressure on him for time in the bigger games.”

For today’s inter-pro at home to Munster, Herring again have to display the patience of a surfer waiting on the right wave, sitting on the sideline until it’s time for Best to be called ashore.

In months like this though, the big games are coming thick and fast, so Herring will certainly have an important role to play at some point through the upcoming Champions Cup clashes against Oyonnax (twice) and Saracens away.

It’s a pressurised period, a far cry from the head-clearing afternoons spent off the coast of Bundoran. Yet they are the days that have helped prepare Herring for seismic months just like this.

Ulster

15. Louis Ludik
14. Andrew Trimble
13. Luke Marshall
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Rory Scholes
10. Paddy Jackson
9. Ruan Pienaar

1. Kyle McCall
2. Rory Best (captain)
3. Wiehahn Herbst
4. Lewis Stevenson
5. Franco van der Merwe
6. Robbie Diack
7. Chris Henry
8. Nick Williams.

Replacements:

16. Rob Herring
17. Callum Black
18. Ricky Lutton
19. Alan O’Connor
20. Roger Wilson
21. Paul Marshall
22. Ian Humphreys
23. Sam Arnold

Munster

15. Andrew Conway
14. Ronan O’Mahony
13. Francis Saili
12. Rory Scannell
11. Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino
10. Ian Keatley
9. Tomás O’Leary

1. Dave Kilcoyne
2. Mike Sherry
3. BJ Botha
4. Dave Foley
5. Mark Chisholm
6. Jack O’Donoghue
7. Tommy O’Donnell
8. CJ Stander (captain)

Replacements:

16. Niall Scannell
17. John Ryan
18. Mario Sagario
19. Billy Holland
20. Robin Copeland
21. Duncan Williams
22. Tyler Bleyendaal
23. Denis Hurley

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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