Ulster's Rob Herring. Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
the big time

'As good as it gets against one of the best sides to ever do it' - Herring ready for Toulouse

Season-defining game already in front of a sold-out Ravenhill feels like a crossroads for in-form Ulster.

OVER A DECADE before they packed down in south east Belfast, Rob Herring and Steven Kitshoff played rugby together for Western Province U21s in South Africa.

Some context: Herring was almost two years older than Kitshoff, who was fresh out of school and into the rugby system.

However, the group found themselves sitting in a room one day doing a goal-setting exercise. A pen and paper job.

Herring put a bit of effort into it and finished up with a long list, different aspirations filed into short-term, medium-term and long-term.

And then he sneaked a look towards Kitshoff’s pad.

One word: ‘Springboks.’

steven-kitshoff Steven Kitshoff. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“I don’t know why that sticks out, but it does, and he’s gone on to do it hasn’t he?” says Herring as he looks ahead to Saturday’s sell-out Champion’s Cup fixture against Toulouse.

The French side sit on top of Pool 2 alongside Bath on ten points, with Ulster and Harlequins beneath them on five.  

Kitshoff’s belated arrival after winning his second World Cup, and his integration into the team, has coincided with an uptick in form that has Ravenhill an optimistic part of the world right now.

He didn’t come in fresh from France and start dictating terms, but as the weeks have gone on, he’s made himself heard.

It’s been small things. The occasional call and technical issues. But really, it’s his presence. How could you not lift your game when a man like that walks into the dressing room?

His contribution has been encouraged, but as we have seen this season so far, Ulster’s is a democratic group with the players at the heart of tactical decisions and innovations.

If that was a problem, then the various parties wouldn’t be so vocal about how it all happens.

“We had a few conversations this week and last week. It’s nice that the coach would have you involved in things like that. There’s a high rugby IQ in the squad and when you come with a plan to execute it, it makes it better,” Herring said.

The last three games have brought wins over Racing 92, Connacht, and most recently, Leinster in the RDS.

The win did no harm for the immediate dividends. But there’s the psychological effect too.

“I think the fact we went down there, the conditions were difficult but we took our chances. We didn’t have a lot of possession but when we had, we scored the most tries,” he said.

“In terms of self-confidence or whatever, in this squad we have always felt we could go down there and win. To go and re-affirm that, to go to Leinster, not play our best and still win, that’s a good outcome for us.”

Toulouse will be different. They are a very distinctive team in the way they attack.

But when it comes to the bump and grind, Herring has met their hookers Julien Marchand and Peato Mauvaka on club duty and with France. His own task is fairly straightforward.

“I think their pack probably weights about a tonne so… yeah, they have some big boys, guys who can carry well, strong scrum. It’s a little messy but they have got some power behind them.

“One of our strengths is the maul, so we’ve got to take that to them as well,” he says.

As much as they will talk through their way through their processes and patterns, they will be wary of the magical Antoine Dupont.

The last time they played was the Round of 16 game in April 2022. The minutes were ticking away to signal an Ulster aggregate win until Dupont took possession in a move, exploited the space and got over the line to snatch the game with five minutes left.

“To be fair,” Herring says, “we haven’t spoken about the exact moment, but I think a lot of players will remember it. It just shows you the quality of the side they have that they can score tries out of nothing and that’s probably a big part of their game as well.”

The ‘Full House’ signs went up as far back as last weekend. An 8pm kick-off time also leaves things that little bit more, well, ‘relaxed’ around Ravenhill with the bands playing and the concession stalls doing their trade.

That’s all the fluffy stuff outside the team bubble.

“At the same time we’ve got to give them something to cheer about as well,” Herring says.

“Dan (McFarland, head coach) said after the Leinster game, in terms of games we play at this club, this is as good as it gets against one of the best sides to ever do it in Europe, and at home, sold-out crowd, how can you not get excited about that?”

Against Munster earlier this season, he became the record holder for Ulster appearances after a decade here. At 33 now, time is ebbing away. Herring looks anxious to get through the week and into Saturday night.

“It’s massive. The rivalry we have had with them over the last few years, that one-point aggregate win they had over us in Europe a couple of years ago…”

“We have had some good performances against them but it is a tough game. They are one of the biggest sides in Europe, the rivalry is right up there.

“But I think it is exciting. A sold-out Ravenhill, it is going to be buzzing and I think it’s a really good opportunity for us to go and show what we are all about in the big games.”

Well here it is; the big time.

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