Saturday 7 December 2019

Ferris keen to have the last word in battle with Boks

Ireland's Stephen Ferris hits a tackle bag during Ireland training at the University of Limerick this week. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Ireland's Stephen Ferris hits a tackle bag during Ireland training at the University of Limerick this week. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile


STEPHEN FERRIS has been picking up a bit of Afrikaans in the last few weeks.

It's kind of hard not to, given the amount of Boers bouncing around Ravenhill these days. Johann Muller, BJ Botha, Ruan Pienaar and Robbie Diack all have a handle on the guttural tones of 'Cape Dutch'. Then there's Pedrie Wannenburg, Ferris' fellow Ulster back-row whose first language is Afrikaans.

With South Africa trekking into Dublin next week, led by veteran second-row Victor Matfield, getting to grips with their mother tongue could be of benefit when Ireland face them down at Lansdowne Road on Saturday week.

Last year, Ireland rounded off their unbeaten 2009 with a 15-10 victory over the world champions at Croke Park when, in addition to security on their own throw, the Irish seemed to have telepathic knowledge of South Africa's calls.

Afterwards, Matfield claimed he heard the Irish forwards counting in Afrikaans but Ferris, who played blindside flanker that afternoon, disputes the notion that Ireland's Afrikaner forwards coach Gert Smal had taught them translation skills.

"No, not at all," laughs Ferris. "We'd just done a lot of homework and knew where the ball was going to be thrown just from the amount of video analysis that we'd done. I actually chatted with the South African guys after the match and they were taking the mickey out of us about it, but it was just the hard work that we'd done that helped us get a good bit of ball off them last year.

"Pedrie Wannenburg's first language is Afrikaans and him and Johann (Muller) and BJ Botha speak it a bit in the gym and you pick up a bit here and there. I'm not sure if our (Ulster's) South African boys are being released for this match, but they are really good guys and have brought a lot to Ulster and it shows just what kind of talent is in the South African game."


In last year's clash, Ferris had to be replaced at half-time and it seems that injury has been a constant companion over the past couple of seasons. He picked up another injury this season, to his shoulder girdle, but has recovered in time to stake a claim for a starting berth next week, saying there are no concerns beyond "a few bumps and bangs".

Ferris is favourite to be named in the No 6 jersey next Tuesday, but there is intense competition in the back-row -- not least from Leinster's Sean O'Brien, who starred as Ferris' replacement in Croke Park last year, and Denis Leamy, rejuvenated for Munster this season.

"Definitely. Denis has been playing really, really well, he's been very consistent and Sean, in the last couple of weeks, has been putting in man-of-the-match performances. They will definitely think they are in with a shout. Last week (defeat in Edinburgh) didn't go so well for Ulster, but we have showed glimpses over the last five or six weeks that we are a team on the up and hopefully I have added to that and can give myself a chance for selection.

"For this year's November Internationals, it is probably the most competition in the back-row (for a while) because I think everybody is playing really well and it will be a difficult decision for Declan (Kidney), I am sure."

However, it is difficult to imagine Ireland going into battle against a side as physical as the Springboks without their 'strong man' in the back-row. The Lions had some heavy hitters among their forwards on the tour to South Africa last year, but it was Ferris who impressed the locals most before injury ruled him out of the Test series.

He is the type of big, bruising forward the Bokke typically embrace and just the sort of muscular presence Ireland coach Kidney needs at the Aviva next week.

"With South Africa, the pack is usually very, very big, they usually have a couple of massive centres in there who make life difficult. But if you can match it and get on top of them, it makes life that much easier throughout the match. They're a very aggressive, powerful side and we need to match that and beat it."

Ireland are looking to put a run of five defeats behind them just as Ferris is determined to get stuck in again, having not played for his country since the defeat to Scotland last March. Time to front up or, as they say in Afrikaans, 'Gee Hulle Hel'.

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