IRFU give Ferris six months to prove long-term fitness
AFTER months of speculation as to where he might be playing his rugby next season, Stephen Ferris has finally broken his long-held silence on the subject by committing himself to a further stint with Ulster.
His acceptance of the six-month contract extension offered by his employers, the IRFU – a package he and his management team had rejected initially – amounts to staking everything on his hope that the doctors who have treated him in Belfast, Dublin and London are right in saying that he will be able to resurrect his injury-threatened career next season.
Once more, however, he has been forced to accept a setback on the long road to recovery.
In May, Ferris revealed that he had hoped to be fit for the start of next season.
However, that has been revised yet again, with his IRFU paymasters, Ulster and Ferris himself resigned to the fact that he is likely to miss the first four months of the 2013-14 campaign.
That is the third such setback with this particular ankle injury, sustained on November 2 while on duty for Ulster duty against Edinburgh, paradoxically in a match which was to have proven his fitness to play for Ireland in last autumn's internationals.
He has not played since.
Having undergone surgery three weeks before Christmas, Ferris was hopeful of being able to take part in the latter stages of the Six Nations.
A second operation in February, when bone fragments were removed, put paid to that.
Last month, he had further surgery, which has scuppered his hopes of a return to action.
Now the target is four months into the new season – hopefully in time for some of Ireland's programme against Samoa, Australia and New Zealand in November, a full 12 months later than originally scheduled.
The challenge the flanker has accepted is to persuade the IRFU that he merits further investment on their part. He has from now until the end of the year to do so.
While that is a high-pressure situation, nevertheless it is the best possible outcome for Ferris who is an Ulsterman through and through.
Certainly, from a rugby-playing perspective, it is better than that now-cancelled, much-mooted move to Japan.
Just a couple of months ago, that move appeared inevitable. Even Ulster coach Mark Anscombe was resigned to losing a world-class flanker.
When, in early April, he was asked if Ferris might be on his way at the end of the season, Anscombe replied: "Yeah, most probably at this stage. He is a great loss.
"I don't know if it is signed or sealed at this stage, that's for Stephen and his support team to make those decision."
It was neither signed nor sealed, however, and a few weeks later, Ferris made it clear that he would prefer to stay where he was, insisting: "I love Ulster. I love Ulster Rugby. Ulster is my home. It's the place I love."
Yesterday, Ulster's director of rugby David Humphreys spelt out his hopes in the wake of this latest development.
"Stephen has had a difficult year with the injuries that he has suffered, but when he is fit there is no doubt that he is one of the best back-row forwards in the game," said Humphreys.
"Stephen is passionate about playing for Ulster and Ireland and our aim in giving him this contract extension is to provide him with the best possible care to enable him to get back playing."
Ferris' reaction appeared to be one of gratitude and relief that he has been given a chance.
"I am delighted that I can continue my recovery and rehab from injury within the Ulster Rugby set-up," said Ferris.
"I believe that working with the medical team at Ulster, along with the excellent strength and conditioning coaches, offers me the best chance of regaining full fitness and of representing Ulster and Ireland again," added Ferris, who turns 28 on August 2.