There are strong parallels between the rugby careers of Rob Herring and CJ Stander on these shores.
Both players were born in South Africa in April 1990 – Stander is the elder of the two by 22 days – and arrived at their respective provinces a little under nine years ago.
Whereas Herring made his Ulster debut against Glasgow Warriors on August 31, 2012, Stander’s Munster bow followed on November 25 of the same year in a PRO12 tussle with the Scarlets.
Following this low-key introduction off the bench, Stander announced himself as a force to be reckoned with by scoring a brace of tries in a win over Glasgow a week later.
Qualified to represent Ireland through his grandfather, Herring picked up his first international cap against Argentina in 2014. Stander has lined out for Ireland through the residency rule and he has done so with distinction over the past five years.
The presence of Rory Best meant that Herring had a fight on his hand to be the starting hooker for both Ulster and Ireland, but after the Poyntzpass man retired following the conclusion of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Herring seized his opportunity with both hands.
Under the stewardship of Andy Farrell, Herring and Stander have featured regularly as starters in the Ireland pack.
Today’s 32-18 victory over England marked their final game together at the Aviva Stadium, with Stander bringing his playing career to an end this summer.
The news of Stander’s retirement came as a shock to Herring and the rest of the squad at the beginning of the week, but they gave him the perfect send-off at Irish Rugby HQ.
“He let the boys know early on in the week and the way the guys got around him, I think there’s a complete respect,” acknowledged Herring.
“Everyone in the squad, they see what he does every week. The hard work he puts in. The determination, the dedication he has to the jersey. What he’s done for Munster, for Ireland.
“He’s really bought into the whole culture and everything that comes with it. He always plays with his heart on his sleeve. It has been pretty emotional for a lot of the guys that played a lot of rugby with him.
“Just delighted we can finish off on a performance like that and he can have that memory for the rest of his life.”
As regards the game itself, Herring felt the fiery performance showed Ireland had absolved the lessons from their defeats to Wales and France in the opening rounds of the tournament.
Next Friday’s rearranged clash between France and Scotland will determine where Ireland end up in the final table, but three victories on the bounce ensures they can glean considerable positives from the campaign.
The last few games against England haven’t gone the way we would like for various reasons. I think today we put that all together.
“Obviously losing the first two games in the Championship, we just had to show, ‘what do we want out of the next three games?’. It was all about character and what the squad’s about, who we represent, and going out and putting that out there.
“Because after the first two games we knew we probably couldn’t win it. We wanted to leave this tournament knowing that we showed that we had improved and we could put in those performances.
“I think today it’s the accumulation of all of that. It was a great way to finish the tournament. Johnny (Sexton) said it out there, we’ve set a new standard now and it’s something we need to build off.”
Even before ‘Super Saturday’, Ireland’s set-piece had been holding firm, with Paul O’Connell adding significantly to the group since being introduced as forwards coach at the beginning of the year.
While there was always going to be a major focus on the legendary lock’s contribution, Herring feels that the work of scrum coach John Fogarty also deserves a spotlight shone on it.
“Scrum particularly, it has been a good campaign for us. We haven’t quite had that complete performance yet and I thought today was pretty up there in terms of complete control,” he admitted.
“We took our opportunities when we had them to really have a go at them. The work we’ve been doing with ‘Fogs’ throughout the campaign and to be fair, the stuff we’re doing in training everyone has been stepping up.
“There has been incredible competition in training. In the final game, to get a complete performance in terms of scrum was great. It’s something we all look forward to building on.”
After that initial introduction against Argentina, Herring had to wait more than three years for his next senior cap. That was as a second half replacement against South Africa in November 2017, and the Ulster forward marked the occasion with a try.
There is the prospect of another reunion with the country of his birth later this year with the British & Irish Lions hoping to enjoy a three-Test series against the Springboks.
A run of nine starts and one appearance off the bench in the last two Six Nations Championships means he will be in contention for a place in Warren Gatland’s final selection, but it has not been at the forefront of Herring’s mind in recent months. He added:
Obviously I’d love to be involved (with the Lions), but I came into this Championship just knowing I need to play well for Ireland and I need to keep putting performances in terms of that.
“Selection for something like the Lions, that’s off the back of the last few years and whatever game is coming up. It was in the back of my mind somewhere.
“To be honest, for me personally, it’s just about putting in performance for Ireland and the rest will look after itself. Selection is out of your hands for something like that and you can just do the best you can with the opportunities you get.”