Ulster v Munster: Tom Stewart aiming to be Ulster's 'number one' hooker this season

Rob Herring and Tom Stewart
Rob Herring and Tom Stewart were both regular starters for Ulster last season

United Rugby Championship - Ulster v Munster

Venue: Kingspan Stadium, Belfast Date: Friday, 10 November Kick-off: 19:35 GMT

Coverage: Live on BBC Two NI, BBC iPlayer and the BBC Sport website; live text commentary, report and highlights on the BBC Sport website

Ulster hooker Tom Stewart says his primary goal with the Irish province this season is to become the first-choice player in his position.

An outstanding breakthrough campaign last term saw the 22-year-old challenge Rob Herring for the number two shirt.

He capped off a series of impressive performances by scoring a record 16 tries in the United Rugby Championship.

"It's a big year for me to get into that number two spot and to compete with Rob at the top," said Stewart.

"At the end of the day we're all professionals, we're all competing at the high end of professional sport and we all want to be at the top, we all want to be number one, that will be my main goal this year," he told BBC Sport NI.

"I have a bit to do. Rob definitely won't make it easy for me - he's an incredible player."

'Rob and I can push each other'

Stewart joined Herring as part of the extended 42-strong Ireland squad for a summer training camp and World Cup warm-up matches, before failing to make Andy Farrell's final party of 33 which contested the tournament in France.

He has begun this season in the same vein as he finished the last with three tries in Ulster's first three games of the season.

"Last year Rob and I got on really well and we built up a really good relationship, especially when I was with Ireland over the summer, helping each other. The more I can push Rob, the more Rob can push me.

"We both grow and at the end of the day it helps the team - that's really the main goal, to get to that final stepping stone and anything we can do to work towards that goal is good.

"Especially with training with him over the summer, I think he just keeps getting better which keeps making it more difficult for me, but the more I can learn off him, it will go a long way.

"Towards the end of last year I was pushing Rob at times and I think it put him on an extra step to go forward, and I definitely saw in his performances that he had that extra bit of hunger, that extra bit of belief, and I hope that was from me nipping at his heels a little bit."

'This will be a big season'

Stewart made his Ireland bow as a replacement during the second half of a 33-17 win over Italy in August and then started the final warm-up fixture against Samoa three weeks later.

"I was delighted to be involved over the summer, it was a very special time for me, I got my first cap, but it doesn't stop there. I plan to get more Irish caps and I'll be hunting that down the best I can.

"That all comes from what performance I put out with Ulster, and that's kind of my main focus at the minute, getting my best foot forward, and hopefully that can leapfrog me into the Irish squad.

"I feel I could get to that level, I have a lot of work to do to constantly compete at that level. It just builds good habits that I need to consistently go about each week. It's not out of my reach and I look forward to hopefully getting there.

"Personally for me I imagine this will be a big, big season for me, going into Irish stuff, I got a taster of it last year and obviously there is now a thirst there, a bit of a hunger, I want to kind of push on and do the best I can."

'We've put some good attacking into place'

Ulster began their URC season with a narrow win over Zebre in Parma, followed by a home victory over the Bulls and a defeat by top-of-the-table Connacht in Galway last time out.

Next up is the visit of defending URC champions for what promises to be another keenly contested interprovincial encounter.

"I think we've kind of put on a bit of a display of how we want to play this season, we've put some good attacking into place and our defence has come a long way, so we'll hope to keep building on those things as the season goes on.

"We're playing Munster this weekend, and it'll obviously be a tough one, but I'm really looking forward to it.

"It's massive, any interpro game you have to target, it's going to be a physical battle, especially when you're at home, you have to make the most of those games.

"We lost to Connacht last week which was disappointing, but we were very close to a good Connacht side who were going really well, so this week we'll look to set some wrongs right."