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'A good few teachers who taught me are still here' - Herring feeling nostalgic before Stormers clash

The Ulster star grew up in South Africa before relocating to Ireland to pursue his rugby dream.

Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

ROB HERRING GREW up in the stands at Newlands, under the shadow of Table Mountain. Going to Stormers and Western Province matches each weekend were as natural as breathing or heading down to the beach for a braai and a few beers.

He idolised Schalk Brits at hooker. He marvelled at the raw power of Corné Krige and Schalk Burger in the back row and, later, a young No.8 breaking through called Duane Vermeulen. He was mesmerised by the silky running of Jean de Villiers in the centre.

He would have passed Newlands every day on the way to school at South African College Schools in the same neighbourhood, where he spent the formative years of his rugby career. The dream was to pull on the blue-and-white of his local team.

He did, to a limited extent. Herring played for the Western Province Under-21 side alongside the likes of Steven Kitshoff and Scarra Ntubeni, and then made two appearances for the senior side in 2012, but the dream never quite became a reality.

By 2012, after a brief spell on a try-out deal with London Irish, he already knew his future lay outside Cape Town, and even outside South Africa. That August he pitched up in Belfast having signed for Ulster and the rest, as they say, is history, as 208 provincial appearances and 26 international caps for Ireland attest to.

So, as he steps foot back in Cape Town on rugby business for the first time since the summer of 2012, this isn’t a story of what could have been. No, for Herring, this is a story of appreciating what rugby makes possible.

“It’s been a great journey since I left and I’ve enjoyed it every step of the way. Me, my wife and my daughter, we’re now very settled in Belfast and [Ulster] are a team I take great pride in representing,” he says proudly.

“To be able to come back and come full circle, playing against the team I grew up watching, it’s pretty cool.

“It’s great to be home. It’s been a while since I’ve been back here and it’s not something I ever thought I’d get the chance to do with Ulster, to come and play in my hometown against Stormers.

“A few of my family came to watch training [on Tuesday] and I’ll link up with them throughout the week, it’s been a while since I’ve seen them all.”

There’s even a personal touch to training as Ulster have based themselves at Herring’s former school for the week, their facilities suitably located and suitably sufficient to do a professional set-up as they prepare to take on the DHL Stormers tomorrow [1pm Irish time].

“It’s been pretty cool to come back and see the places I grew up and where I started my rugby career,” he grins. “Still a good few of the teachers who taught me and some of the coaches are still there, so it’s been good to see them again.”

It won’t be Newlands that Ulster play in tomorrow, unfortunately, the Stormers having since relocated to the shiny new DHL Stadium perched on the edge of the blue expanse that stretches off to the horizon. It won’t mean quite as much to Herring, but it’s not enough to detract from the moment.

The Ireland hooker will still take a moment to drink it in. He’ll probably go and catch up briefly with former team-mates Kitshoff and Ntubeni, who are likely to feature for the Stormers, and he’ll make sure to pick out his family in the crowd during the warm-up.

But once the whistle goes, it’s all business. Ulster are bidding to become the first northern hemisphere side to win a game in South Africa this season and, at the same time, further their claim to be a top-two side in the United Rugby Championship standings.

“It’s an incredible challenge. No-one from the URC has won in South Africa yet, none of the foreign teams – that right there tells you how good they are at home and particularly how well they’re playing at the moment,” Herring points out.

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“What we can expect is the physicality, that’s a big one, and the Stormers have a really good attack that can score tries from anywhere, and you’ve seen that in the URC so far. For us it’s just trying to impose our game, what we do well against them.

“It’s going to be a massive challenge, some guys haven’t played in this heat before, but that’s all part of the experience and something we look forward to.”

Some more than most.

A new episode of The Front Row, in partnership with Guinness, is out now. After Ireland’s Triple Crown win, Murray Kinsella gives us the rundown on his team of the tournament. Ireland international Sene Naoupu also joins the panel to chat about her career and look ahead to the start of the Women’s Six Nations. Click here to subscribe or listen below:


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