Doubters add fuel to Ferris fire
"Unfortunately, the human body wasn't made to do what Stevie gets it to do on the rugby pitch. Your bones can be as strong as you like, but your tendons and ligaments can hold you together for only so long and that's where he's damaging himself." – former Ireland strength and conditioning coach Mike McGurn
Published 16/01/2013 | 05:00
As with most rugby players, Stephen Ferris' Twitter feed is a mixture of banter, training updates and the odd product plug, so when he took to the social network to dispute a newspaper report last November people took notice.
The Ulster, Ireland and Lions flanker was irked by comments his former strength and conditioning coach Mike McGurn had made to the 'Belfast Telegraph', casting doubt over the 27-year-old's ability to keep playing for much longer.
Players often say they don't read newspapers, but the report was brought to Ferris' attention, causing him to immediately respond with: "People can write and say what they want about me in Newspapers. It's the people I trust and care for who's opinion matters. #fish+chipspaper."
It was an emphatic retort from a player who knows full well that doubts remain over his ability to continue his career with the same abrasive style of play. Time hasn't calmed his defiance.
Since injuring his knee on the Lions tour to South Africa, a blow that robbed him of a certain starting Test spot, Ferris has played just 41pc of Ulster and Ireland's matches – 58 out of 141.
During that period, the blindside has had knee and ankle trouble, while he also fractured his cheekbone and a finger. The news that he needed surgery on an ankle tendon injury last month added further evidence to the case that he is a player whose injuries are getting on top of him.
McGurn's thoughts echoed those that have been voiced about Ferris' long-term health in rugby clubs around the country over the past couple of years.
Ferris refutes the notion that his injuries will finish him and says that he will be stronger and better when he returns to play in February.
"People can say and write what they like, but they don't know me. They may have had experiences of working with me, but..." he says, tailing off.
"Reading that article, it didn't make me angry, but that is somebody that I've worked with and I think he should have kept his opinions to himself. That's my opinion and I know a lot of other people who share that opinion.
"I'm the strongest I've ever been in the gym and personally I feel absolutely fantastic, so I just can't wait to get back out there and when I do get back out there, I think I'll be better than I was when I left off."
Asked if it annoys him when people write off his ability to recover, Ferris was adamant that only he, his team-mates and the medics who work with him on a regular basis can judge his health.
"Of course it does (annoy me). Everybody who plays professional rugby gets injured, it is part and parcel of the sport," he said. "It is getting more and more physical and every time I flick on my 'Sky Sports' app and go to rugby, there is someone else out with a long-term injury. Every week there is somebody getting injured.
"The only people who know me are the medical staff I work with and the players I play with. They know my body and I know my body."
McGurn also shared his concern that the way Ferris plays the game was contributing to his injuries, saying: "He is a really combative player, but unless he changes his style of play – which would be hard for him to do at this stage of his career – and avoids some of that contact, there's not going to be much longevity."
But the player himself denies that he needs to tailor his style, saying the injuries he has suffered have all come from freak incidents.
"Definitely not, no," he said. "I jumped up in the air to catch a ball and went over on my ankle. With my knee, I was out for six months after we got a pushover try and I was looking the other way, with my knee slightly flexed, and their tighthead prop fell into my knee.
"Two innocuous injuries are going to keep me out for 10 months between them. So, I have been unlucky; I dived on a ball and somebody kicked my finger and fractured it, I fractured my cheekbone in training when Nevin Spence, God bless him, ran into me and I was caught the wrong way.
"That's not running too hard or being too aggressive. These things happen."
The flanker's ankle operation was carried out by the same surgeon who treated Brian O'Driscoll, who returned early from his tendon injury.
Ferris draws inspiration from the Ireland captain's ability to bounce back from a series of injuries, and believes he can do the same as he targets a mid-Six Nations return.
"You look at somebody like Brian, he has had a list of injuries that is longer than mine and every time he has come back better," he said.
"Against Edinburgh, when he came back he said to me he was a bit rusty, but they scored five tries in Murrayfield. You look up to somebody like that, you look at him coming back better and you want to do the same.
"The same guy operated on his ankle as did mine, if it's as good a job as he did on Brian's then hopefully I can come back early too."
Although he has only played three times for Ulster this season, a fit Ferris would be parachuted into the Ireland set-up during the Six Nations. While he is expected to miss the opening two rounds, the third match against Scotland is within his reach.
Declan Kidney kept him in his plans by involving the 35-times capped player in his December camp, and Ferris believes that the international team are in a good place ahead of the championship thanks to the Ulster-flavoured infusion of youth into the panel.
"It is great that Declan wants me there, I'm part of the squad and it is good to know," he said.
"The amount of young guys that have come in, it is unbelievable. You look at the difference between the team at the 2011 World Cup and the one from last November and there is a freshness about the place and a sense of opportunity. Everybody thinks they have a chance.
"That breeds confidence and it is a good thing to have. The boys that have come in are so laid-back and confident.
"I remember coming into the Ulster team and we were mid-table. Now we're winning games, young lads are slotting into a team with 13 internationals and we're winning by 20, 30 points and the confidence that breeds is like what Leinster have."
Despite his injury woes, Ferris' outlook is positive and, with another shot at the Lions on the horizon, he just wants to get back playing and prove the doubters wrong.
No one would begrudge him that opportunity; now he just needs to stay healthy, which has proved easier said than done in the past.