Wikipedia describes a red herring as something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important question. It may be either a logical fallacy or a literary device that leads readers or audiences toward a false conclusion.
But there is nothing red herring about Ulster’s South African-born and schooled Rob Herring and there is no false conclusion. Herring, the player and not the expression, has only ever led Ulster’s passionate rugby audiences to one conclusion – and that is of a world-class player and quality human being.
Herring, of all the celebrated South African players who have won favour with Ulster’s rugby public, is the one who has done it as an Ulsterman. He arrived in Belfast more than a decade ago as a youngster and over the next 10 years would complete all his professional rugby apprenticeship out of Ulster.
Herring’s classroom education may have come in South Africa but his rugby education is all about Ulster and Ireland. It is here where he has made a name for himself as one of the best hookers in Ireland and if Ulster are to beat rivals Munster in the United Rugby Championship quarter-finals, then you can be guaranteed Herring will be at the forefront of the triumph.
Veteran Springboks Ruan Pienaar, Marcell Coetzee, Robbie Kempson, the late Pedrie Wannenburg and most recently Duane Vermeulen have all made their mark with Ulster, but all of them arrived in Belfast as Springbok Test players. Louis Ludik, who played 112 matches for Ulster between 20014 and 2017, also arrived as a very experienced Super Rugby player.
Herring’s journey is very different. He had played just two matches for DHL Western Province before making his debut for Ulster in 2012, via a brief Academy spell at London Irish.
In fact, Herring told RugbyWorld Magazine, that he initially turned down Ulster’s approach because he wanted to stay in Cape Town and complete his studies.
Herring, schooled at South Africa’s oldest school SACS, played Varsity Cup for Maties (Stellenbosch University) and was intent to study first and then determine whether he had a professional rugby career.
It all changed when he decided to give it a ‘short-term crack’ at Ulster. This short-term is now closer to 11 years, almost the time Herring joked it took him to finish that Varsity degree.
Herring’s career has always been followed closely in South Africa and his highs for Ulster and Ireland have always been well documented.
Ulster’s brand has also never needed an introduction to the South African rugby public because of the likes of Herring having such a presence over the past decade.
Herring, who has played 211 matches for Ulster, said that first season in Belfast as a 20 year-old, nearly didn’t happen.
‘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 through my grandparents ancestry, had seen my clips and asked if I wanted to come over to play in Ireland. But I’d only been back in Cape Town (from London Irish) 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.’
That three years has now become 10 years and counting.