Rob Herring: ‘With lineouts it’s fractions, there are so many moving parts’

Ulster player is hoping it’ll be third time lucky to see him seal a berth in Ireland’s Rugby World Cup squad

No sooner does he finally see off Rory Best, his captain at both Ulster and Ireland in the same specialised position, and become the starting hooker throughout the 2020 Six Nations, than along comes first Rónan Kelleher and then Dan Sheehan. For Rob Herring, things certainly don’t get any easier.

Although he made a fleeting debut off the bench in the second of the two-Test tour to Argentina in 2014, albeit two minutes as a flanker, the 2015 Rugby World Cup came too soon for him,

Then, after five more caps in the 2017-18 season, Herring started the opening warm-up game against Italy before the 2019 World Cup, but suffered a back spasm in the first quarter which led to him missing the cut for that 31-man squad.

Herring was subsequently called up as a late replacement for the injured Sean Cronin three days before the quarter-final defeat by the All Blacks.

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Hence, the 33-year-old desperately wants a playing role in this World Cup, but without being overly distracted by such thoughts.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t really wanting to go for it. Obviously I think we all are, but having missed out before the approach I’ve had is just one day at a time and be where your feet are.

“I’m not trying to think too far ahead, just taking it day by day and give my best self in training and in matches and hopefully selection will look after itself.”

Rather than comparing himself to others or trying to emulate them, Herring says: “I think I’ve just got to focus on myself and what I can bring to the team and highlight those areas.”

Talking to the travelling media in the Stade Jean Dauger, the perspiring Herring was, by his own admission “roasting” despite the relatively cool air of the press room underneath one of the stands behind the goal-line, having just completed a weights session.

Herring certainly brings his own strengths, be it his work-rate, mobility and big-game mentality – witness that superbly-taken and crucial try in the decisive third Test against the All Blacks.

There’s also his world-class darts, which made England’s defensive lineout effort - prompting a rare crooked throw and an overthrow by Herring - even more impressive.

“There was a couple, a crooked throw is a process error by me, and some of the other things where maybe there’s not a full lift. We’re pushing things at the moment, we’re trying to get ‘max-draw’ on everything we do and at the weekend we probably let ourselves down with some of the outcomes in the lineouts.

“But, it’s back to work this week. We reviewed it, straight back into the new options for this week.”

With Paul O’Connell overseeing the Irish lineout, there’s no sense of panic just yet.

“He’s unbelievable. His attention to detail and the way he coaches us is brilliant,” said Herring. “And then you have the lineout leaders like Hendy [Iain Henderson], Tadhg [Beirne] and Cheese [James Ryan]; the guys who run the show really throughout the week. They consult with Paul, but they take ownership of it during the week. We moved on quickly and get on with it now.”

The scrumhalves have been practising their throwing in training, with Herring and the other hookers providing tips, and recalling his own mentors, he said: “When I was with London Irish we had good coaches over there, like Neal Hatley, and we’ve had guys come in throughout my career, but sometimes you get coaches who just try to change too much, [looking] for the perfect thing.

“I think it’s more just about repetition and your process and being comfortable with the way you throw and being able to repeat it. Over the years that’s what I’ve found has helped me the most.”

With age comes wisdom, and Herring has learned to become more focus-driven in his throwing than outcome-driven.

“Like, you could have the perfect throw that they just get up and take or the wind takes it and it gets skewed, or something like that, so it’s just being able to move on from that and nail your next few throws. That’s probably been the biggest change in my approach to it over the last few years.”

Atoning for a missed throw can be compounded by the next one coming after a big tackle, or winning a turnover.

“Gary Keegan’s been really good at identifying cues and processes to bring you back to neutral,” says Herring in praise of their highly-egarded sports psychologist.

Hookers have less time than kickers before trying to hit an imaginary target that can be up to 25 metres away.

“I always say to the kickers, they think they have it hard yet we’re like them but it’s as if the posts were moving while they were kicking!

“And that’s the thing with lineouts. There’s a lot of moving parts and like on the weekend sometimes things can go wrong and it’s fractions. We are a fraction away from being 100 per cent, or it’s 85 per cent or whatever.”

He does take it personally when a lineout goes awry.

“I’ve got better at getting over but it does annoy me a little bit, yeah. I think at the time you’ve got to move on very quickly in the game. It’s in reflection, I do get annoyed if I’ve missed something but it’s just the way it is. You’ve got to move on and get back to your process and try and get better.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times