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'World is O'Brien's oyster'

Winning has a way of spreading a wide smile across the face of an entire province. It is the best way, the only way to create a happy working environment.

This much is obvious from the upbeat demeanour of Ulster and Ireland flanker Stephen Ferris as he transitions from Heineken Cup quarter-final qualification to the prospect of the Six Nations.

How is Ireland shaping up? "I think we've got a great chance. It is a stepping stone towards building up to the World Cup," he said.

Ireland coach Declan Kidney will have to make a difficult decision on the best combination to adopt for Ireland's back row. It is not one Ferris would like to have to make with the tight competition for places boosted by the superlative form of Leinster's Sean O'Brien.

"It is ridiculous. Sean has been playing unbelievable. Hopefully, he will get a sniff at it this time around and, hopefully, I will be alongside him," said Ferris.

It was only last month Ferris wanted to rip into O'Brien as the Tullow tearaway tore Ulster in two in the Magners League as the British & Irish Lion nursed a 'glute' tear.

"I was sitting in the stands watching him at Ravenhill -- 'Where are my boots?' -- I wanted to get on there. He has been doing really, really well. I get on brilliantly with Sean.

"I have a lot of time for him. He is the kind of guy that has been biding his time over the last six months. He was hampered by injury in previous years."

Of course, coach Kidney is as unpredictable as the Lottery numbers. His loyalty to John Hayes has been gob-smacking; to David Wallace less so.

All will be revealed at the team selection next week.

"The way Declan looks at it, we'll not be looking any further than Italy," said Ferris.

"That is the way you have to look at it. I am very excited about going down to Limerick this week."

The Springboks have shown that it is possible, even preferable, to use three explosive ball carriers in the back row, rather than the traditional groundhog, especially with the emphasis being placed on continuity at the breakdown.

"With the ELVs (Experimental Law Variations), the rule changes, there are now bigger back rows," added Ferris.

"More carrying, more tackling is better for the teams at the minute the way the rules are. It is something that Ireland is doing.

"Also, you've got more lineout options if you have three tall, athletic back rowers. The front rows would say it is also better for the scrum."

It could pave the way for a Ferris-O'Brien-Heaslip back row.

At the moment, Ferris is nursing a knee injury in the afterglow of Ulster's passage through to a Heineken Cup quarter-final date at Northampton Saints.

A jolt to his left knee left him down, but not downbeat, about his prospects of being fit for Ireland's first match against Italy in Rome on Saturday week.

"I have history with that knee," he said. "I tore my cartilage in 2007 on my third Ireland cap in Argentina. It has troubled me for the last couple of years. It has been pretty good until now.

"I am hopeful that there is nothing too serious there," he said, before heading straight for a scan yesterday morning.

"The excitement the Six Nations brings is hard to beat. The Heineken Cup was fantastic. When the Six Nations comes, it lifts again.

"When the (Heineken) quarter-final comes, it lifts again. Then, we have the World Cup around the corner. It is big game after big game."