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'I came on a seven-month trial initially... it’s been a pretty incredible journey'

Rob Herring joined Ulster’s 200 Club against Benetton on Friday night.

Herring, right, has helped Ulster get the new season off to a perfect start.
Herring, right, has helped Ulster get the new season off to a perfect start.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

SITTING ON 229 appearances as the province’s most capped player alongside Andrew Trimble, former Ulster centre Darren Cave felt the need to send a text to former team-mate Rob Herring asking him to slow down.

Still just 31, Herring became only the seventh player in the province’s history to reach 200 caps when he led them out against Benetton at Kingspan Stadium last Friday and, with the Ireland hooker still under contract for another season beyond this one, Cave’s record is under severe threat.

Last Friday proved to be a fitting way to celebrate the milestone, too, Ulster earning a late bonus point win over the Italians in Belfast to maintain their perfect start to the season and, to top it off, Herring was able to celebrate it with his family, including daughter Milly, who stole the show by hijacking the microphone in his post-game interview with the BBC.

“It’s been tough at times having family away from us and not being able to come over (during the pandemic),” admitted the hooker. “So to have them back for what was a really special day, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. My wife’s family was over a few weeks ago, so it was special to see them. It just topped it off. It’ll be a great memory that I’ll look back on and in the future and always cherish.

“(At times like this) you do kind of reflect on the last nine years. I came on a seven-month trial initially and things just went from one thing to the next. It’s been a pretty incredible journey. A lot of things have changed since I first arrived – I’m married, I’ve had a kid, it’s that sort of journey of life.

“To be able to do that at one club, alongside playing rugby, it’s been special. There’s been lots of ups and downs on the pitch, but more ups than downs, which is a good thing, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time over here. That’s why I want to keep going for as long as I can.”

Breaking Cave and Trimble’s record is something the South African-born front rower admits he hasn’t given much thought to himself, but the current milestone is one that he richly deserves given his dedication to the Ulster cause from the moment he arrived in Belfast back in the summer of 2012, particularly given how it has come about.

Having spent so many seasons stuck behind Rory Best in the depth chart and having to bide his time, it’s not surprising to hear Herring admit there were many frustrating times spent in the dressing room wondering when his moment would come.

He was flying in the league and producing superb displays for the province while they were without the Irish skipper, but when the big games rolled around in Europe or at the business end of the season, back came Best to supplant him in the starting line-up. The mental side of those decisions were taking their toll.

“There were times in and around that period where it was really tough. I was at a stage where I felt like I was ready to kick on and get more starts, particularly in the big European games and then hopefully kicking on to get more Irish caps. But when you have someone like Rory ahead of you, and he’d just been named Irish captain at the time, it was definitely tough,” he admits.

Leaving was an option, and his performances had attracted the interest of some suitors with the promise of more game time, particularly in those big games. However, despite those intriguing propositions, Herring opted to stick in Belfast and make a fist of it – and he has been rewarded.

Since Best’s retirement in 2019, the 31-year-old has been not only the starting hooker for Ulster but also for Ireland, and has adapted to the role seamlessly, so much so that he has managed to hold off the likes of Rónan Kelleher and Dave Heffernan to start nine of Ireland’s last 10 Six Nations games.

“I just kept working away knowing I couldn’t really control the selection aspects of it and all the behind the scenes stuff, I just had to keep putting my best foot forward and making the most of those opportunities,” explained Herring.

“It was difficult at times, but I’m really glad that I stuck it out and that I didn’t take what might have been the easier option and move on to a different club. I think I made the right decision to stay and I’m reaping the benefits now and over the last couple of years. The challenge is now how long I can keep playing at the high international level and keep pushing myself at Ulster.”

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But just as quickly as he reached 200 caps, it’s put behind him. The future is still bright for Herring, who isn’t nearing the end of his career despite the milestone and, as well as going on and becoming Ulster’s most capped player, wants to continue that run in the Ireland number two jersey.

It will be difficult given the ever-impressive Kelleher, who was called up briefly to the British and Irish Lions squad over the summer, and also his Leinster team-mate Dan Sheehan are both staking their claims, but Herring, for his part, won’t surrender his starting place with a whimper.

“I’m hungry to keep playing international and stay at that level. I’ve gained a lot more confidence over the last few years and being able to put a few games together in the Six Nations, one of the toughest tests you can do,” he says defiantly.

“I’m a lot more confident I’ve done it now and hopefully I can keep doing it. But there’s so much competition at hooker throughout Ireland, so that keeps you on your toes and you have to keep at your best and improve where you can. Hopefully the rest will take care of itself.”

- updated 21.30 to feature on TheJournal.ie

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