Tempers flare between James Haskell (2nd R) and Stephen Ferris during the Six Nations

Name: Stephen Ferris
Position: Back-row
Age: 25 (2 Aug 1985)
Born: Portadown, Co Armagh

I’d encourage anyone who’s a late starter in rugby to believe they can make it. I didn’t pick up a rugby ball regularly until my mid-teens as I was more interested in playing football. Javelin was another sport that I enjoyed. I threw for Ulster Schools and it’s something I might have continued with before rugby came along.

It’s never too late to start playing the game, although I’d acknowledge I’ve been lucky over the years, getting a few good breaks. John Hayes and Tom Court are other good examples of Test players who didn’t start rugby until pretty late.

I didn’t play for the first time until I was 11 or 12, when I went to the Friends School in Lisburn. In those early days I’d go to practice two or three times a month, and I didn’t take it too seriously until my final year when I made the first team.

I’ve always played in the back row. At school and in my early years with Ulster it was at No 8. I loved it as it allowed me to get my hands on the ball more.

I believe I can play anywhere across the back row. In my first season at Ulster I started at No 8 alongside Roger Wilson and Neil Best in a pretty big back row! I’ve also featured at openside as well as blindside.

The turning point for me was being spotted by Allen Clarke. The call was out of the blue, and it allowed me to join the Ulster Academy when I left school. But I never dreamt it would lead to me becoming a professional sportsman. Without Allen’s intervention I might not have carried on with the game.

I picked up things pretty quickly training with the Ulster Academy. I joined Portadown too and spent a few years there. We had cracking teams and won a lot of trophies, so I’ve great memories of playing there. I also spent a season and a half with Dungannon before moving into the Ulster side.

Everyone looks to us because Ulster is the only fully professional sports side in Northern Ireland. That following gives us great inspiration and to see the number of supporters in Milton Keynes, when we took on Northampton in last month’s Heineken Cup quarter-final, was magnificent.

It was heartbreaking for everyone involved to lose in the quarter-finals, but I think it shows the team is going places. We have the potential to get there again, and win this time.

I genuinely believe we have the potential to go on to greater things. A few years ago we lost players like Tommy Bowe, Roger Wilson and Neil Best. Now Ulster are more ambitious and a number of high-quality players have joined.

The core of the team going forward can be formed by players like myself, Paddy Wallace and Rory Best, who are staying around.

World-class signings like Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller and Pedrie Wannenburg have also joined. David Humphreys (Ulster’s operations director) has done a fantastic job of bringing them here. Everyone is settling in nicely and we need to add to that now.

A real buzz is in the air around Ravenhill at the moment. All the players buy into the atmosphere at the club and I believe it has a great add-on effect to rugby.

Ulster has become a team that people want to play for. Everyone enjoys their time in Belfast. It’s a great city in which to live and to bring up a family.

I was lucky enough to be part of an Ulster team that won the Magners League in 2006 through the straight league system, but the play-offs have added something to the end of the season and supporters seem to really like them.

Exciting is how I’d describe the new format. Munster’s great start means they’re running away with the regular season, but there’s still everything to play for behind them with the prospect of two massive occasions in May.

Did you know? Ferris’s role model growing up was All Black Jerry Collins. “He was my inspiration and I’ve tried to base my game around the way he used to play,” he says. “I don’t think you would play rugby if you didn’t enjoy smashing people.”

This article appeared in the June 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.

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