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Ferris: I'm in the running

"A race against time," is how team manager Paul McNaughton describes the efforts of Stephen Ferris to prove his fitness before Ireland's departure for the World Cup at the end of the month.

Ferris knows he's got a fight on his hands to claim a seat on the plane. But he's resolutely optimistic. His aim is to be fit and ready to answer Ireland's call for our opening Pool C game against the USA on September 11.

"I'm one step behind the rest of lads at the minute," he admits. "But I'm feeling good and have been clocking up the miles. It's all very good running and doing game-related fitness and agility work but you have to wait until you get that first contact. I'll get a bit of that done over the next few weeks.

"Hopefully, I'll come through it as well as I have over the last few weeks."



OPERATION

Ferris had an operation in April for a cartilage injury he describes as "innocuous".

"I put the injury in January down to bad luck," he says. "If I had injured myself running into a brick wall of players it would have been a different story. But that's rugby. You've just got to pick yourself up and get on with it. I'm as strong as I've ever been now and I'm getting to full fitness."

There are the four internationals in August and a game against Connacht to aim for. But Stephen reveals: "If Declan (Kidney) wants me to get a bit of game time there are also opportunities with Ulster who have a few games too. Fingers crossed, I'll keep improving and get some game time with Ireland. I need to take it week by week. The weeks are coming down at last but that's a good thing for me. I'm looking forward to hopefully putting on a green jersey again."

It goes without saying that having Ferris available for the campaign ahead would be a massive boost. In his five years as an international, he's gained a hell of a lot of big-game experience.

"I suppose," he concedes. "I was going into the 2007 Word Cup with four caps under my belt.

"Now, if I'm selected, I'll be going into the 2011 World Cup with 24 caps, two Lions appearances and a previous World Cup."

In that time he's seen the game develop.

"The standard is getting higher," he enthuses. "When you're playing in competitions year on year, your standard is also getting higher, but you probably don't realise it as much as an outsider looking in would.

"If you just look at how Leinster, Munster and Ulster performed last year and the quality of player and quality of team that we're playing in year in and year out, it's getting better. Leinster are winning cups. Munster winning the Magners. It's great and the standard is rising every year. It's good to be part of that. It's good to be with a good team like Ulster where the standards are also getting higher."

And Ferris has also worked with a wide variety of coaches.

"I've experienced Eddie O'Sullivan coaching. Mark McCall, Matt Williams, Brian McLaughlin, Neil Doak, all these different guys and now Declan (Kidney). All head coaches work in different ways.

"Some are approachable. Some aren't. But you've just got to keep playing and, if you're selected, keep playing well and if you're winning that makes things a hell of a lot easier.

"It is good to have all that experience from different coaches going into big games like these ones coming up."

How difficult has it been for him to keep his spirits up and maintain his focus knowing that he might miss out on the biggest tournament in the world?

"It's always a setback when you get injured but I've bounced back pretty well from previous injuries," he says.

"It is tough. For me, the last six months have been more mentally draining, especially with Ulster doing so well this season.



Tough

"I haven't played in the Heineken Cup quarter-final before. Missing out on that was tough. The semi-final of the Magners League, as it was, and obviously the Six Nations. It is tough. But I've had to deal with it before, especially on the Lions tour when I hurt my other knee, an MCL tear which I never had a problem with again. It is frustrating but it's part and parcel of the job. And every single rugby player that has played for Ireland has experienced injuries at some period in their careers."

The prize of playing in the World Cup makes the intense recovery effort worthwhile for the Ireland flanker.

"I've experienced the disappointment of not getting playing in the World Cup in 2007," he tells me.

"So it's exciting to maybe have an opportunity, if selected, to go out in front of the whole world. Everybody's watching. That's what you dream about as a youngster, playing on the big stage.

"In the Pool stage we're playing against Australia, some of the best back-rowers in the word. That team is probably the on-form team in the world at the minute. They're playing some good stuff. The Reds winning the Super 15, it's all good for Australia. So you've got to look forward to these challenges."

Ferris earned his first cap in the last ever international at Lansdowne Road.

An auspicious occasion he describes as "another big game". His Six Nations debut was against France in a packed Croke Park.

"You're playing big games week in week out, but it didn't come much bigger than that game against France for me," he admits.

"It was great we got the win in the end. I'd never been to Croke Park before and hopefully that was another experience that will stand me well."



Fascinating

Ferris started every game in Ireland's 2009 Grand Slam campaign, so I suggest his autobiography will be fascinating. The big man bursts out laughing. "If I ever wrote a book, half of it would be about injury prevention," he quips. "It's good. I'm 25 and hopefully have a few more experiences ahead."

What of the year ahead for Ulster? How does Stephen view his team's prospects? "We've got to kick on from last year," he states.

"We've a couple of great signings. John Afoa, who was on the bench for New Zealand against Australia, he's coming to us next year. BJ Botha is away to Munster, so he's coming in at tight head prop for us.

"We've got Jared Payne who's been the Aukland Blues' best performer for the last season. He can play anywhere in the backline but he's probably going to get a good few games at 15. Ruan Pienaar's still there. Johann Muller is still there. He's signed another year's contract.

"We've got Simon Danielli from Scotland. So with Andrew Trimble, Paddy Wallace, Pedrie Wannenburg, Rory Best and Tom Court, I'm sure there'll be a lot of squad rotation. That's keeps the squad happy too."

There was one last thing I needed to know from Stephen. Like the golfers, would he have been using the services of sports psychologists to help him through difficult times?

"I don't use sports psychology at all," he declares. "There have been guys in the past who've come in to talk to Ulster as a team in general but my head is usually fairly straight. I approach every game the same.

"Thankfully, my performances over the past five years have been very consistent.

"Some of the golfers might win a tournament and then drop down to 20th in the world and they'll be wondering why, so they go and see these guys.

"But I've been pretty strong. I suppose injuries make me stronger."

"I train and try to get myself into the best physical shape," he says firmly.

"Mentally, for me, if I'm peak physical condition I'll perform on the pitch."


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