Even his team-mates do everything possible to avoid the wrecking ball that is Stephen Ferris. One of Test rugby’s most destructive players, Ferris has developed a ferocious reputation that leaves friend and foe alike scrambling for cover.
“Stephen is a special specimen,” says Ireland forwards coach Gert Smal. “He’s got natural power and explosiveness. One of the team’s jokes is to stay out of his way because he can hurt you! When he connects with a player, they really feel it.” In a highly physical sport that values power as much as skill, Ferris is among the hardest operators. He always breaks the gain-line and few are as devastating in the tackle – he clearly knows only one way to play the game.
Ferris says: “I pride myself on good defence and carrying the ball strongly. I never leave anything behind. I put my body on the line as much as possible. Sometimes that might not be the right way of doing it, but that’s my instinct for the game. I give 100% and try to be as physical as possible. I enjoy getting stuck in.”
Never was that more evident than in the historic World Cup victory over Australia in Auckland as Ferris was responsible for the game’s headline moment. Spotting that Will Genia had picked up the ball at the base of a scrum, he grabbed the Wallaby playmaker and carried him ten metres, with the rest of his Ireland pack in hot pursuit (video below). It was a critical moment that rattled Australia, who had just seen the heartbeat of their side driven into the Eden Park turf.
“I’ve watched it a few times,” he says. “People have posted about it on Facebook and Twitter. It’s nice to look over but at the time I didn’t think it was much of an issue. I thought I’d only carried him one or two metres. It was important to get on top of one of their best players and Cian Healy was doing such a good job that the scrum had wheeled around. The referee put his hand up to say the ball’s out, Genia picked it up so I picked him up. It was instinctive.
“My mum, Linda, will have that on DVD back home! It laid down a marker saying we won’t lie down easily. It lifted the crowd, it lifted us. When they picked me up off the ground it was a good feeling.”
Having such little regard for his own welfare has taken an inevitable toll, though Ferris insists he has also been the victim of bad luck on the injury front. The most notable occasion was on the 2009 Lions tour to South Africa when he tore the medial collateral ligament in his right knee during a training session. It was early in the tour and the muscular Ferris was in devastating form.
“That injury was the most deflating because I was in the mix and was playing very well. I was unbelievably fit and my body felt great. It happened during a collapsed maul in training and was bad luck. With the Lions we were competing for places and I wanted to be better than Tom Croft in training. You can’t leave anything behind and if you don’t give 100%, you can get injured.”
Though the right knee inflicted the greatest heartache, it is the left knee that is now the main concern. Three operations, one of them this year, ensure it must be managed carefully and he misses one training session per week as a precaution.
However, he has recovered well from his latest setback and says: “Whenever I’ve been out injured, I’ve concentrated on coming back stronger and that always seems to have happened. That’s more of a mental thing than anything. You know you still have the aggression, skills and physicality. But if you’re out for six months sometimes it can be hard to prepare yourself mentally to come back into it again.”
Given the impact he’s had in the Test arena, it’s hard to imagine that Ferris was initially dubious about life as a professional player. “I left school when I was 16, more or less arsing around and living for the weekends. I was out manual labouring and earning a few quid. I appreciate what I have now when I look back at it.
“It wasn’t until I was 20 and going reasonably well in the Ulster Academy that I knew I could be a professional. A development contract was put in front of me. I wasn’t entirely convinced – you see lots of guys who come and go, disappearing after a year or two.
“I remember saying to my mum, ‘I can earn twice this paving driveways’. She said, ‘No, no, no sign it! Take this pen. Listen to me and sign it!’ I’m glad I listened to her because it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I thought I’d give it a lash for a season, played 15 games for Ulster and it snowballed from there.”
Now that he’s restored to full fitness, Ferris has begun setting targets. “I want to help Ulster reach the knockout stages of big competitions,” says the 26-year-old. “There’s a Lions tour in two years’ time and I really want to be part of that. I’d never experienced anything like South Africa in 2009. I’d like an opportunity to be on another tour, but a lot can happen in rugby in two years.”
This article appeared in the November 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.
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