“We usually make tackles stick”

HERE’S no need to delve into the DVD collection to sum up what makes Stephen Ferris the player he is. Proof of the Ulster man’s DNA surfaced in what should have been a routine training session in Durban last summer.

It had been a good week for the flanker. It started with a try in the annihilation of the Golden Lions and continued with another touchdown and a man-of-the-match award in the tight win over the Cheetahs.

By then, he had already done enough to nail down the number six jersey for the first test, even though an injury in training at the start of the Lions tour had cost him his place in the opening game against a Royal XV in Rustenburg.

With all that in mind, no-one would have balked had he decided to tread water for a few days but that would have run contrary to every instinct he possessed as a rugby player and a competitor.

No, Ferris went at it hammer and tongs and his reward was a twisted right knee. Ian McGeechan confirmed soon after that he had suffered medial collateral ligament damage. His tour was over.

“I tried to empty the guy that time in training and he fell on top of me,” he recalled this week. “If I’d just smothered the guy up I could have stayed out there and got three tests under my belt.

“But that’s who I am. That’s me. I won’t leave anything behind. If I make a tackle, I will go at it 100%. I won’t go at it 50 or 60%. That’s exactly what I am going to try and do this weekend.”

On the plus side, that Lions disappointment has taught him a thing or two, like how to combine his natural zeal with a smidgen of savvy during the week without losing the fire that makes him what he is come the weekend.

“Look at Simon Shaw. He’s 37 and I tried to take a bit out of what he does. It’s about getting the right balance. I’ve learned going flat out in training every week will leave you tired come the game.”

If there’s any one thing more astonishing than Ferris’ impact on the field this last few years it is the fact that he has managed it all on the back of a succession of injuries that leave you wondering ‘what if?’

The latest was another knee injury picked up during Ulster’s Heineken Cup defeat away to Bath in January that kept him on the sidelines when Ireland opened their Six Nations campaign against Italy three weeks ago.

“It’s awfully disappointing and frustrating but that’s rugby. People say that every time I speak to journos or anyone it’s a case of ‘how’s the injury?’ but it’s the same any time a journo is speaking to a rugby player.

“It’s always about injuries because they are just part and parcel of the game. I do get down on myself at times, like on tour with the Lions, because maybe I didn’t have to make that tackle in training when I got injured.

“Maybe being a bit smarter, that kind of experience will hopefully help me in the future but you just have to take it on the chin. If you keep bouncing back it shows you are a fine player.”

Ferris, then, is clearly a fine player. Not just because of his ability to come back time and again from his injury setbacks but also because of his bewitching combination of explosiveness, athleticism and skill.

His importance to Team Ireland was illustrated in the week leading up to the French game in Stade de France when his imminent return to fitness persuaded Declan Kidney to delay his final selection until late in the week.

Another, less gratifying but equally noteworthy, indication of his impact has been the increasing frequency with which he seems to have been targeted for special treatment by the opposition.

Nowhere was that more evident than in the Heineken Cup match between Ulster and Stade Francais in Ravenhill last December when he was the focus of some less than friendly attention from both Julien Dupuy and David Attoub.

Ulster did, at least, win that particular game. His more recent Gallic memories are far more painful after his return to action in Saint-Denis ended with a 33-10 defeat to Marc Lièvremont’s side.

Ferris’ usual tackle count in international games hovers around the 15 mark. With Ulster it once reached a high of 27 but he managed just half a dozen hits during the defeat in the Stade de France.

“Everyone else was in the same boat. It is just when you are on the back foot and they are getting good ball. As a team, we are not like that usually. We usually make tackles stick and slow down the ball.

“Every time we hit somebody they got an offload in and there was another line break and then another offload. It was a very, very difficult day for us at the office.”

For all that, it was a game he describes as “a small blip” and his attention has long since turned to Twickenham and, in particular, the English back row of Nick Easter, Lewis Moody and James Haskell.

“They are all fine players, no doubt. I’ve played against Haskell a couple of times this year with Stade Francais. I played against Nick Easter with Harlequins a couple of times last year.

“They are very good ball carriers. They get around the park very well and Nick Easter is a very good footballer and a great line-out option as well. There is no doubt that they are a very strong back row.”

With Ferris on tow, the feeling will be mutual.


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