Find out more about his progression from South Africa to Ulster to Test rugby

TAGS:

Ireland hooker Rob Herring on his rugby journey

Patience is a virtue, goes the proverb, so Rob Herring must be extremely virtuous.

Born in Cape Town, the hooker qualifies for Ireland through his mother’s family, who hail from Belfast, and made his Test debut from the bench in Argentina in the summer of 2014, just two years after joining Ulster. However, he didn’t double that tally until facing South Africa in Dublin in November 2017. Then at provincial level, Herring spent close to a decade as understudy to Rory Best, who played into his 37th year.

Yet the past year has marked a change in fortunes for Herring. He’s now Ulster’s first-choice hooker, scoring a try as the province beat Edinburgh to reach last season’s Guinness Pro14 final, and is set to hit the 200-appearances mark over the next few months. At international level, he was Andy Farrell’s starting hooker for all five of Ireland’s Six Nations matches.

Now part of Ireland’s Autumn Nations Cup squad, Herring talks through his rugby journey…

My earliest rugby memory is probably watching my brother-in-law, Anton Moolman, play. He played provincial rugby in South Africa for Boland, so we’d always be talking about him and seeing him on TV, and we’d go to club games.

I’ve three sisters – two are 21 and 20 years older than me while my youngest sister is eight years older. My sister and brother-in-law’s son is only three days younger than me, so it’s an interesting dynamic.

The 1995 World Cup also stands out as a memory. I was really young at the time (five) but it had a big impact in South Africa.

The first time I played rugby I was ten years old. My first school didn’t have rugby as a sport, but the school my nephew went to played rugby and I ended up going there. My dad didn’t play rugby – he played football for the Navy – while my mum played table tennis, hockey…

I was one of the big guys in my year. I went straight into the second row because I was tall, and because I was slightly bigger I seemed to enjoy it a bit more than some other guys! I always enjoyed playing with mates and having fun. I moved to hooker when I was 12 or 13 – everyone caught up with me.

Ireland hooker Rob Herring

Exile: Herring’s London Irish headshot in 2009 (Getty Images)

London Irish took a chance on me. I was playing rugby at South African College High School and in my final year I was trying to decide what to do. I had a few opportunities – the Western Province academy, a gap year, then out of the blue I got in contact with the academy manager at London Irish.

He knew I had an Irish passport through my grandparents, we got chatting and I sent over a few clips from school. It was a long shot, but they had a hooker who’d unfortunately had an ACL injury so would be out for a large part of the season, so the academy manager said come over and give it a shot (in 2009).

That academy manager was Neal Hatley. He had a South African connection and my headmaster had taught him at school. He’s now Bath’s head coach and has worked with England. He was such a great mentor to have at London Irish – life skills, how to be a pro. I couldn’t have asked for a better start to rugby than being in the academy there with Jonathan Joseph, Marcus Watson, Anthony Watson, Matt Garvey… It was a good crop of guys and I definitely owe a lot to Neal Hatley and Justin Bishop, the coaches at the time, as well as the whole London Irish set-up.

In the first couple of weeks I was really close to going home. It was definitely a big change for me. I’d just turned 19 and had moved to a new country, was thrown into a professional environment… When you’re young you start to doubt yourself, ‘Do I deserve to be here?’ Luckily I stuck it out and after a few weeks I was more comfortable in the environment, made good mates and I ended up having two of the funnest years of rugby there.

We trained with the first team from the get-go. It was a baptism of fire but I learnt a lot. In South Africa, there are so many schools and to break into the provincial age-group set-up they generally look at bigger schools. I wasn’t selected for any age-group stuff there and I’d have to have paid to go to an age-grade academy. They normally contract 20-25 players and the rest of the 90-100 players have to pay to go.I’m not sure if it’s like that in other provinces but it was with Western Province; it’s such a draw to come to the Western Cape and Cape Town. Instead, I had an opportunity at London Irish, there were ten of us in the academy and I knew I’d get quality coaching.

I came over to see if I could make the cut in professional rugby. I knew I’d be there for two years so would see how it goes and where it takes you, but international rugby wasn’t on my radar.

I played in the Varsity Cup in South Africa. I didn’t get offered a senior contract at London Irish, so I decided to go home to study, doing a combination of law and business. During that time I played for Western Province U21, then played in the Varsity Cup. That’s a great tournament; I was playing an incredible standard of rugby and the exposure you get while studying makes it a great system. More countries would do well to adopt it. We had a good side (FNB Maties of Stellenbosch University) at that time and got through to the final.

Ireland hooker Rob Herring

Ready for action: Rob Herring in the Ulster tunnel in 2014 (Getty Images)

I initially said ‘no’ to Ulster. I still don’t know how they found out about me but a couple of weeks after that Varsity Cup final my brother-in-law got a call from David Humphreys, who’d heard I’d got an Irish passport, had seen my clips and asked if I wanted to come over to play in Ireland. But I’d only been back for eight months, had just started studying and was happy to be home.

Then I got a call from the Connacht director of rugby and that made me think maybe there is an opportunity over there. Ulster wanted me to come over for two years, so I said to David Humphreys, ‘I’m quite happy at home, why don’t I come over for six months? If it works out I stay, if not I go home and next year I’m studying’. He agreed to that, so I gave it a crack. I was fortunate to have a good pre-season, played a lot of rugby in that first part of the season and then signed for three years.

My Ulster debut stands out. When I came over, I didn’t really know what to expect and there were a lot of quality hookers at the club. But I was lucky I had a good pre-season and started the first game that season, so that’s a good memory for me.

So is being named captain of the club four years ago, that was special. Away victories in the European Cup are always moments that stand out – one of them was Toulouse in 2015. My first Irish cap in Argentina was also massive, a special occasion for myself and my family.

Ireland hooker Rob Herring

Take a bow: Rob Herring (far right) ahead of his Ireland debut against Argentina (Getty Images)

You could say patience is something I’m good at. I was always keeping myself motivated but it was tough at times. Rory Best is a great captain and a great leader and a great player, he earned the right to play as long as he did. When I came over, David Humphreys said to me, ‘We’ve got Rory, time is ticking on, he’s probably going to be looking to retire soon’. Eight years later he did!

My second cap is almost greater than my first. With the time between my first and second caps (three years, five months), I was thinking I’d be a one-cap wonder and wouldn’t get that opportunity again. Luckily enough, I stuck at it and found form.

That first cap will always be a good memory for me, then to work that hard and get capped again meant a lot to me. The hard work paid off. That second cap was against South Africa so that added to a special moment.

I’m still trying to play the same kind of game as always. Having a high work-rate is something I pride myself on, making other people’s jobs easier. I’ve kept that throughout my career. I’ve definitely improved on my set-piece, particularly scrummaging, as when you’re younger it’s still a learning curve. I’m always working on stuff, but the core parts of my game have remained the same.

I love being in the water. I enjoy surfing and going to the beach. The weather here may not be as nice as Cape Town but the waves are very good, top class. My wife and I like to go exploring, taking off for long weekends and finding random places to stay.

We had a little girl, Milly, on 9 April. That was one of the big positives of lockdown – being able to spend time with Milly and watch her grow. It’s been quite cool and I wouldn’t have had as much time if we had been playing.

Self Help Africa do brilliant work. I started to help out with them two years ago as I connected to what they do and it felt like a good thing to be involved with. They don’t provide aid like most charities, they provide long-term solutions – farming equipment and knowledge, a means to go to market.

I’m now ten years into my degree! I converted to the Open University up here and got my modules transferred. I’m starting my last module now, so hopefully I’ll finish in May. I’m at the stage now where I just want to finish!

This article originally appeared in the November 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.

Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.