A professional rugby player can pay a cruel toll to live the dream. Stephen Ferris played for Ireland, collected a Grand Slam and has a Lions jersey or two in the wardrobe at home.
But it came at a cost. He retired last year at just 28 because of a long-standing ankle injury. Even now, that injury has an impact on his day to day life.
“My mobility isn’t too bad, but the ankle joint itself... I thought it was a good idea to go for a run on a treadmill on holidays, for instance, but I tore my plantar fascia (foot tissue), literally because I don’t have any flexion in the joint. It’s not too bad walking around but I have really bad neuromas in my toes, so now the ankle isn’t feeling too great. Okay, I’m not ever going to run again, because I was off my feet for four or five days on holidays after hurting my foot, but I have to get these neuromas sorted because the ankle is making me walk completely differently.
“It’s a bloody nightmare, but it’s not just the ankle killing me. Both knees are pretty sore, pretty shot, as well. Everyone suffers injuries but I had my fair share.”
Ferris is still at his playing weight, but that has to change, he points out.
“I was going to the gym every day for 10 years, really, and that’s not something you just cut out — ‘I’m not doing that any more’. Not when you’ve been doing it more or less every day for so long.
“I need to wind it down, though, and I want to because I don’t need to be 110kg and fit to run through a brick wall anymore. Losing weight would also take some of the pressure off my ankle and knees, so over the next few months, I’ll be in the gym doing rowing, high-intensity weights and trying to burn off calories without putting on bulk. I’ll try to lose a few kg, but it also ties into what work you’re doing too, whether I’m busy or not. But the genes are good, my mum and dad are healthy. I should be okay.”
Ferris, chatting in Kinsale as the annual 7s rugby and fun festival kicks off this weekend, lived every moment of the Six Nations earlier this year, but then, to rinse rugby from his mind, he and his girlfriend hit the road for a round-the-world trip.
“It was great to experience some new cultures — we were in Thailand for a month, Australia, a couple of weeks in New Zealand and a month in America on the way home.
“The highlight was Orlando, and acting like a big kid on all the rides. That was probably something I didn’t get to do when I was struggling with injury, having the craic like that.”
The long struggle prepared Ferris for the inevitable.
He compares the gradual realisation that it’s all over with the difficulty of adjusting to a sudden retirement.
“100% it helped me. If a player gets a serious injury, God forbid, and has to pack it in overnight, that’s very tough. For the four or five months before I finished I knew the writing was on the wall. I knew my ankle didn’t feel right, but it’d be far harder if you were injured one day and told the next that you’d never play again.
“I’ve had a lot of people tell me how sorry they are for me having to pack it in, but I had an absolute blast for 10 years. I feel very privileged, very lucky. Yes, I had my fair share of injuries, but I also had plenty of craic, won a Grand Slam, all of that. I celebrate my career rather than looking back and saying ‘what if’?”
The usual gap for a professional sportsman is the loss of structure in retirement, when a detailed timetable vanishes. For Ferris, the months of rehab eased him towards working to his own schedule.
“By the time my career ended, that was more or less the case. I did weights when it suited me, but I know what you mean about the timetable. Structure is more and more important in the professional game, and I’ve told people I couldn’t walk into an office and twiddle my thumbs.
“People have asked me if I’d work for myself and so on, but as a professional player you’re working for yourself, in effect anyway. I’ve made a lot of contacts and I’m hoping that’ll stand to me as I go on.”
He’s looking forward to the World Cup and is bullish about Ireland’s chances.
“Why shouldn’t they think they can win the World Cup? For previous tournaments, I think Ireland have gone with the attitude of ‘we’ll see where we go’. Ireland should go there with great confidence. They’re the best team in the northern hemisphere, they’ve proved that in the last couple of years. They should go out thinking ‘we can win this, we’ll take every game as it comes but if we get to a quarter-final we won’t do what we did against Wales and go into our shell’.
“That was probably the worst performance of those couple of years (in 2011), which was a pity, because when it gets to knockout rugby, anything can happen.
“Joe Schmidt is so well prepared that when they get to a quarter-final, I don’t think he’ll let them slip up.”