Ulster determined to 'take step forward' insists Rob Herring

Ulster face Quins at The Stoop on Sunday.

Rob Herring hailed the influence of Paul O'Connell on the Irish lineout.
Rob Herring hailed the influence of Paul O'Connell on the Irish lineout.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THE IMPACT THAT Paul O’Connell had on Ireland’s set-piece was no more evident than in the win over Scotland in round four of the Six Nations.

At BT Murrayfield, not only did Ireland win nine of their 10 line-outs, they produced a defensive masterclass at the set-piece, picking off three of the Scots’ line-outs and limiting their hosts to a paltry two wins on their own throw, paving the way to an important victory.

That performance had O’Connell’s fingerprints all over it. A colossus of the line-out in his playing days, it was no surprise to see that kind of influence transfer into the coaching domain, and, while not quite as important against England as against Scotland, the line-out functioned cleanly at the Aviva Stadium a week later too.

While some of Andy Farrell’s decisions have been met with lukewarm responses and results, this one has been a resounding success in its infancy. Players have lined up to hail the former captain’s influence, Josh van der Flier the latest this week to add his praise to the long list.

And Ireland hooker Rob Herring, who started against both the Scots and English, threw his weight behind those comments and expanded on his own thoughts of a player he briefly partnered on international duty but will now be keen to work with on a long-term basis at Carton House.

When asked what was most influential about O’Connell, Herring’s response was simple: “Just the person he is and what he achieved as a player and a leader. He came in and was a great addition to the squad.

“He just helps you focus around the set-piece and the breakdown area that we’re working on, and he’s obviously a great student of the game, his rugby brain is brilliant.

“I was just trying to take in whatever I can off him. And then the mentality with which he does things, I was trying to soak up as much as possible of that as well.”

Herring’s role with Ireland was somewhat understated as, while he was shielded from carrying duties, he excelled in the lesser seen statistics. Dependability at the set-piece and a breakdown nuisance, his impact on games was more noticeable when the in-depth dissection took place afterwards.

Now he hopes to take that kind of influence of his own back to his province in their bid to end a trophy drought that will shortly tick over to 15 years later this year as they head to Harlequins on Sunday looking to progress to the quarter-finals of the European Challenge Cup.

It’s not the ideal situation for Ulster. They don’t want to be playing in the second-tier competition, ideally they would be preparing for a Champions Cup last-16 tie instead, but Herring insists that the nature of the tournament won’t be a factor in their motivation at the Stoop this weekend.

“As a club we want to be competing for championships. It’s not the Champions Cup that we aspire to but it’s still an opportunity for us to take a step forward as a club again,” he acknowledges.

“The guys have come in and there’s a lot of excitement this week. Ultimately it’s going to be a very tough game, Harlequins have turned their season around massively and they’re playing some really good rugby at the moment. It’s a tough challenge but it’s one as a squad we’re looking forward to.
“The way things have gone this year, we only had two rounds and things have had to adapt, games have been called off and we’ve found ourselves in the Challenge Cup.

“It’s still a tournament with a trophy at the end of the day. As a squad, that’s the next step we need to take. In the past few years we’ve been close as a squad, we’ve been to play-offs and we need to take that step forward. This is a great opportunity for us.”

While some ally themselves with the belief that winning the Challenge Cup wouldn’t be enough to shake off that nearly men tag that Ulster have found themselves burdened with, Herring insists that is not the feeling within the squad at Kingspan Stadium.

The South African-born hooker points out that with the profile of the squad in Belfast, any silverware in the cabinet will only help them learn how to become serial winners at the business end of each season, something that many felt about the province had they won one of their two finals in 2012 and 2013.

Back then, a squad pioneered by foreign talent such as Ruan Pienaar, John Afoa and Johann Muller came up short against Leinster in both the 2012 Heineken Cup final and the 2013 Pro12 Grand Final, and by the time the trio left the trophy cabinet in Belfast was as bare as when they arrived and a lack of homegrown talent pushing through saw the team regress sharply.

Now, with the province seemingly on an upward trajectory but through a more Irish-dominated squad, the key is to capitalise rather than let their momentum slip away again.

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“No-one in this squad has won anything with Ulster,” points out Herring, who was on the bench for the 2013 Pro12 Final and started last year’s Pro14 Final.

“I’m a big believer that with the squad we have now and the young players we have coming up, as a province we are in a really good place and there’s so much to be excited for. We have to take that next step now.

“To actually go and win something, that just drives everything forward again. People have that feeling of winning that makes that want to get it again. Especially with the young guys we have in the squad, we just have to get that monkey off our back and then things will start driving forward.

“There’s a big difference between believing you can do something and actually doing it. That breeds a whole other level of confidence and know-how in play-off games.

“I’m a massive believer that, as a squad, we need to take that next step and it will breed that success.”

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

Murray Kinsella, Bernard Jackman and Gavan Casey look back on the Pro14 final and ahead to the provinces’ European knockout games.

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