Ulster Rugby Lad meets… Rob Herring
Ulster Rugby Lad meets the man at the centre Of Ulster’s formidable front-row.
Rob Herring has filled Rory’s very large boots for Ulster and Ireland.
Here, he discusses how a gap year in England turned into a professional rugby career, his journey to Ulster and the excitement that is building in the young Ulster squad under new head-coach, Dan McFarland.
How did you get into rugby? Who were the players who inspired you growing up?
Well, obviously growing up in South Africa rugby is a pretty big deal!
My sisters are a lot older than me, so I looked up to my brothers-in-law who both played rugby. I grew up watching them. One of my sister’s husbands played provincial level rugby in South Africa so I would have gone to watch him play.
I moved to a school called Newlands. Rugby was quite big there. I started playing when I was 10 and all my mates were playing. It was only when I was 17 or 18 that I started to think I should take it more seriously.
I always remember Corné Krige when I was growing up. He was the captain of the Stormers. I remember him being amazing. He was always regarded as being small for his position, but he was a really physical, dogged type of player. I remember him growing up and he was a big inspiration and guys like John Smit – he has done so much for South African rugby and he was just known as a great leader, great bloke and an inspirational player.
Why did you decide to play hooker?
When I was 10, I was one of the taller guys in the grade and when I started playing, I was put in at second row. When I was maybe 11 or 12, I threw in the lineouts and then everyone caught up to me in height and then they said to me ‘why don’t you move to hooker’. I played a bit of back row at various teams including when I was at London Irish. I’ve basically always played hooker apart from a few games though. I definitely think that the front row club are a special breed of people!
Did you stand out as a really good player at school?
I didn’t really, no! I was an alright player. I played 1st XV but I achieved more at water polo which was my main sport at school. I didn’t play much age grade provincial stuff. I went to a couple of trials. It’s so competitive in South Africa. There are like 10 rounds of trials. The guys who get through tend to be Afrikaans schools – traditional rugby playing schools.
My school was decent but not the top school by any means. Each province has a large number of schools and we would have been top 10 or 15 in the province but not a top rugby school in South Africa by any means.
When did you think you could actually make it as a professional?
It was quite late actually. I planned to do a gap year working in England doing ‘stooging’ in the school hostels. I had signed up for that then out of the blue I got a call from Neal Hatley – the England scrum coach. He was at the London Irish academy at the time and my principal at school taught Neal Hatley when he was at school.
My headmaster said to Hats that the hooker they had just signed had just had an ACL injury and was going to be out for the whole year.
My headmaster said, ‘I know a decent hooker – take a look at him’. So, we sent through some of my school clips. London Irish and Hats took a big chance on me. It was only because I happened to be there at that time and the fact my old principal knew Hats that I got the opportunity!
I wasn’t in the mix with provincial rugby in South Africa at that time, so it was an amazing opportunity.
I did two years at London Irish and then didn’t get offered a senior contract. They had three hookers contracted already and so then I decided to go home. I played in the provincial system back home through my brother-in-law’s connections. He said ‘this guy has been playing overseas. Do you want to take a look at him?’. So, I played for Western Province under-21s and then I played club rugby for a big university called Maties – Stellenbosch University. They are a rugby powerhouse.
There is a Varsity Cup which is an unbelievable tournament. It’s the top 8 universities and they play on Monday nights. There might be 20,000 people watching. Music playing throughout the game. You play with a pink ball for the last 20 mins of the first half and last 20 of the second half and if you score with the pink ball everyone gets free beers. It’s an amazing atmosphere and those were great times!
The standard of rugby in the Varsity Cup is very high. I would be interested to see how many of the World Cup winning Springboks team came through the Varsity Cup. I’d say a fair number of them.
Then after that David Humphreys must have had someone out there – a scout or something – and they must have found out that I had an Irish passport through my ancestry. They asked me to come over for a two-year development contract. I initially said no! I was back home, studying full time and was looking to get my degree and was having a good time playing in the Varsity Cup.
They wanted me over in June 2012. I said to Humphs I would do 6 months until December and if it didn’t work out then I would go back to South Africa in January and continue with my studies. Connacht were also talking to me at the same time. However, Connacht said ‘two years or nothing’. I thought it would be a better option to go to Ulster for 6 months and if it didn’t work out then I could come back home.
What was your first impressions of Ulster? Did it take a bit of getting used to?
When I arrived it was meant to be summer. It was raining almost every day! We were training in Newforge in the rain. I was thinking ‘what is going on?!’. I’ve grown to love it here though. The lack of sun still gets to me a bit, but it was a difficult time at the start. I didn’t know many people, so it took a bit of time to adjust to life here.
I moved in with a few of the guys – Ali Birch and Sean Doyle. We were all pretty close at the time which made it easier to settle.
You came into a very successful squad. What was the atmosphere in the squad like? Did they welcome you with open arms or was it hard to integrate as someone joining the squad?
I think the guys were quite welcoming but there was a lot of cliques. It took a while to break into the wider group. Everyone was grand though. In terms of competition there was Besty, Nigel Brady was still playing, and Niall Annet was there too.
When I joined, I was told by the coach ‘You’re fourth choice. Train your hardest and see how you go.’ It was Mark Anscombe at the time. It was quite good because he was new and had no pre-conceived ideas about members of the squad and places were up for grabs. The first pre-season game I got 20 minutes, then in the next game I got 40 and then I started the third one. Then he backed me to start the first few games of the season. It was a bit of whirlwind! I was not expecting that at all when I arrived.
Have you witnessed a change in the atmosphere over the years? It seems like there is real unity in the squad now – how has the squad dynamic changed over your time at Ulster?
Back in the day, like most rugby clubs at the time, there was much more of a hierarchical structure. The senior players didn’t talk as much to the junior guys. There has been a real conscious effort to change that over the last few seasons – we’re all in this together now. This is the tightest squad I’ve ever been involved in. Everyone is humble and hard-working. This year has been some of the hardest training sessions I’ve ever had. Maybe in the past there would have been some moaning about hard sessions but now everyone is excited for it – the guys in this squad love the tough training sessions because they know we’ll get better as a result.
The average age of the squad a few years ago would have been around 30 and now it’s probably 24 or 25. There has been a changing of the guard. I’m 29 and I’m one of the old guys now!
There is so much competition in the squad in every position but also at hooker – Adam McBurney and John Andrew, for example. It must make it really competitive in training as guys compete for the coveted No.2 jersey?
In the last two years we have seen from the younger squad genuine competition in training. The coach picks on form. The guys who aren’t picked for the week add so much to what we’re doing, and the standard of training is so good now. People are obviously disappointed when they’re not picked – of course they are. You’d be worried if they weren’t disappointed. The difference now is that they flip the switch and say ‘I’m going to make the guys who are starting better and train really hard for the team’ so that’s quite a good place to be in.
How do you get mentally prepared for games? Is there anything in particular you do to get ready?
I have a structured week now before games. It has evolved over the years. What I do and when I do it. It did a lot more visualization and analysis before games which I wouldn’t have done as much of in the past.
For a Saturday game I would have all the visualization and analysis done by Thursday and then on Friday have the captains run. The day before a game I switch off completely before the game and just do other things to stay busy. Otherwise, you can get nervous if you start to think about it too much.
How does that effect you playing in front of a big crowd? Do you thrive on it and use it to motivate you or do you block it out and put the blinkers on to stay focused?
It’s weird because a part of me thinks the crowd doesn’t affect me because you’re so in the moment and thinking about your next job, your next task and how you’re going to execute it.
However, you can also definitely sense the crowd. You won’t hear specific things from the crowd, but you can hear the noise, the things the crowd are responding to. They bring an energy. Over here, playing at the Kingspan is unbelievable. We play around Europe and it’s great to have home support – not just the amount of people but how loud they are is just ridiculous. You go to some other places and it’s not the same.
In the past our away form hasn’t been that good because you get used to the hype at home. You go away to places where there is not as much of a crowd and not as much noise. We tried to change our mentality around that – we bring our own buzz and try and back each other up as much as possible and bring as much energy as we can. We try and exist in our own bubble of energy for away games.
Thankfully, mental health is discussed more openly in rugby now. As a professional athlete there is obviously quite a lot of pressure and criticism that comes with that. What are your coping mechanisms when things don’t go the right way?
We have access to sports psychologists – you can phone them up if you want to and they would come in for the odd session with us.
When you win big games, that game against Clermont, for example, there’s such a high. Then, in contrast, there will be games when, as players we don’t think we’ve played that well, both as individuals and as a team. That can be really hard to deal with. There is a lot of pressure on you as a professional rugby player.
Form is such a big thing in rugby. You can be on top form for three weeks then you do a couple of bad things in a game and that can really affect you. There is a lot more emphasis on mental health in sport now which is great. We had a talk from the Players Union on mental health in sport which was brilliant. Just half an hour to remind us to ask the guys around us ‘how are you actually doing?’ It’s really important to step back and look out for the guys around you.
The press can be ruthless and there is so much criticism when the team doesn’t play well. Of course, every player has ups and downs in the course of their career. It’s obviously key how you respond to those setbacks. Can you think of a time when a perceived set-back or failure has spurred you on to greater success?
It’s hard to think of one specific instance but there are loads in the course of a season. I’ve had a few injuries and selection things when you feel things aren’t going your way.
With Rory being here, it’s been great because you learn so much from him and he’s an amazing guy. But it’s difficult because you feel at times you have added a lot and when it comes to Europe you know Rory is going to be picked to start. For a large part of my Ulster career I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about it.
It was when Jono Gibbes came he sat me down and just said ‘you’re in a tough situation, it is what it is but all you can do is to make sure you prepare as best as you can’. Selection policies are out of your control. This was Irish selection he was talking about with me. It really resonated with me. You have to put your best foot forward and if selection goes your way, it goes your way. It might not this time but maybe it will the next time if you just keep putting your best foot forward.
What was the experience of getting to play international rugby for Ireland like? What was your experience of joining up with the squad for the most recent World Cup?
My first cap was in 2014. I was playing pretty good rugby at the time. I wasn’t expecting a call up and then was asked to go to Argentina for the tour. I got a few minutes off the bench in the second half. It was such a brilliant experience and I loved it. I thought ‘right, I’m going to kick on from this now and be in the nix from now on.’ It was four years later I got my next cap!
I guess in terms of setbacks there was a period when I was thinking ‘what am I doing wrong?’ I was not getting as many starts in big games for Ulster as I would have liked. The chat from Ireland was always that ‘you’re playing well but you’re not playing in the big games’. And then when I did get my next cap it felt like a new experience, another first cap. It came against South Africa and I remember singing the Irish anthem and it was strange because I am stood beside the South Africa team – it was a weird situation. I enjoyed it when I came on and we beat them convincingly. It was a great experience, but I could have done without the big gap between my first and second caps!
In terms of playing for Ireland, I have always aimed for it. Since my first Ireland cap I thought ‘I can do this. I want to kick on and play at this level’. Every time I get in to camp, I love it as you are playing against the best guys in the country and you feel like you always improve as a player. Playing under Joe was a great experience. Joe is a good coach. Every time I went down there, I felt I improved as a player. I didn’t get as many caps as I would have like under him, but it is what it is.
There will be competition for the Ireland No.2 jersey with Rory retiring. What sets you apart as a player and gives you that X-factor you need to play at the top level?
You constantly have to ask yourself what your X-factor is. For a long time jackaling was one of the big things I focused on. I have gone away from that a bit now. The way I see myself fitting into the defensive unit in the team is providing energy, working hard and organizing guys. At the moment I like having that leadership role in the defensive units and getting the boys up for that.
Obviously, as a hooker you’ve got to be good at a lot of things. I want to improve a lot on my ball carrying and get my hands on the ball a lot more. I don’t think I’ve shown that as much as I could have in the past couple of seasons. As with all hookers, the set-piece is going to be the main marker for me, and I also want to provide that energy and organization in defence.
What has been the impact of Ulster’s new head-coach?
Dan has been great. He came and wanted to see what was important to us as a group of players and has really drawn on that. He has a vision for where he wants Ulster to be. Everything we do is built toward where we want to end up. In terms of player management and the type of person he is, Dan is just a really good fit for our squad at the moment. He is really getting the best out of everyone which makes us better as a collective. His individual player management and the culture he has instilled at Ulster is what sets him apart from other coaches.
In terms of Ulster’s expectations – what do you want to achieve with Ulster?
The short-term goal is to be in the position where we are competing for trophies. We always want to be in that position. If we keep improving at the rate we are, that’s the position we are aiming to be in. Every team is improving so it’s a question of how we can improve quicker than everyone else.
What has been the impact of Ulster’s new front row club – Marty Moore and Jack McGrath?
Jack has come in and been brilliant. When he is injured, he will work hard and come in and put together a scrum package for us. He leads conversations around that. His knowledge and experience is invaluable – it’s gold-dust especially for the younger guys in the squad.
Marty has been phenomenal for us as well. He is knocking on the door of Ireland. He gets around the pitch and he’s one of the best tight-heads I’ve ever scrummaged with – he gets into great positions. ball carrying and tackling. He has been a big part of our defence which has been really good this season.
Are there any young guys coming through that you would ear-mark as being the next big thing or anyone in particular who stands out?
Stewart Moore is class. We saw a few glimpses of him last year. He is a big talent. James Hume as well. Rob Baloucoune has been brilliant as well. Matty and Marcus Rea in the back-row have been great and both have a big future ahead of them.
You have captained Ulster before – are you a natural leader and is it a role you enjoy?
I captained a few teams at school. Doaky asked me to be captain over the 2015 World Cup period when Rory was away. I didn’t enjoy it at first. Of course, it was a massive privilege and honour but there’s so much goes with it – speaking to all the guys in front of the group. It’s not my natural personality to do that. I prefer to lead by example rather than a lot of talking.
As I’ve got older, I think I’ve improved on that and learnt how to talk to different people because people respond differently. To have those conversations, get the team together and say the right thing at the right moments is tough. It’s a work in progress. I enjoy it now and it’s easier because you have so many leaders in this squad. It’s not the same guy talking all the time. We bounce off each other and there are 10-12 guys who could be captain in the side now. I think that’s the mark of a great side – any number if guys could be captain. You need that core group to bounce off each other and take ownership of themselves first in order to lead the team well.
What the best advice you’ve been given in rugby or life?
Ever since I was really young, I was instilled with a really strong work ethic. I wasn’t the most talented, but I had a work ethic. I was told to embrace that work ethic.
Joe always said to be ‘moment focused’. Every day is a new process and you might wake up on a Monday and not be that keen for training but you have to remind yourself how lucky you are to be doing this and take that day one moment at a time because it will make you better if you do.
If you drop the ball in a game, you have to stay in the moment and think about how you’ll overcome that by focusing on the next task and not stay stuck in the past. Mental strength is about being able to put stuff behind you and thinking ‘how do I make my next involvement a good one?’.
As I said, Jono gave me some good advice about selection – ‘put your best foot forward and everything else is out of your control’.
What has been your favourite moment for Ulster?
There are so many! My first cap against Glasgow. I wasn’t expecting it at the time and that was brilliant. The first time I captained a European game it was against Oyonnax at home and we beat them convincingly. Back to back against Toulouse. The Quins win a few years ago. The quarter-final against Leinster we lost. We had worked so hard and the support was amazing. The guys left everything out there – such a great memory. My first start in Europe was another one. I got man of the match against Treviso. Too many others to list!
If you weren’t playing rugby what would you be doing?
I really enjoy surfing, so I’d be doing more of that! Anything to do with food. Next step would be to look at something in the food industry. I also really enjoy travelling. I’d love to convert an old bus into a camper van and cruise around in that, but I think my wife would kill me! It’s a bit of a dream but not sure if it will happen. My main interest would be something to do with the food industry as I really enjoy the business aspect of things as well.
I am part owner of 5 Percent Café. My wife does the accounts and the other staff/owners help with it as well. I can’t commit too much time to it at the minute, I just don’t have hours right now. Anyway, I just get in the way when I come in!
It’s important to have something to go to when I retire. Given how I got started in professional rugby I’ve always been conscious it was never a guaranteed thing. I didn’t know how long it was going to last so I always had it in the back of my mind what I was going to do when it all finishes. I am currently studying a degree in Economics which I hope to have finished in May 2020. I’ve been doing it for ages and just really want to get it done now. So, apart from the rugby, that keeps me busy as well!