Body and mind
Injuries have been a constant blight on the career of Stephen Ferris but the flanker remains mentally strong about his physical challenges
THERE is a picture doing the rounds of Stephen Ferris guaranteed to make most men quail and most women quiver.
The flanker stands with hands behind his back and a self-effacing grin on his face, clad in cycling shorts and a coat of body paint, showing off a physique the Greeks would have committed to marble.
For those of us whose stomachs owe more to Abrakebabra than Adonis, the picture below is an undeniably unsettling image but also a reminder of the frailties of even the most robust human body when subjected to consistent, sustained punishment.
At present, damage to a knee that is now devoid of cartilage is preventing the 25-year-old from contributing to Ireland's Six Nations campaign and, with seven games to go to the World Cup and the clock ticking, there is an imperative to get Ferris fit and firing as quickly as possible. He was in the squad for the last tournament but didn't feature, adding extra incentive to make an impact at New Zealand 2011.
Four years is a long time to wait for the next one, as Ferris knows from his experience on the 2009 Lions tour, when injury denied him Test recognition.
Elements of the English media would have it that Tom Croft was the superior player, but while the Leicester flanker was athletic and skilful, he lacked the brute force of Ferris which would have been invaluable against the bulk of the Bokke.
Declan Kidney installed the Ulster man as his first-choice No 6 when he took over in 2008 and, while optimistic that Ferris will be back better than ever, he is also pragmatic when it comes to the issue of injuries in the modern game.
The rate of attrition in rugby has increased exponentially since professionalism and Ferris himself questions whether he will be capable of playing beyond 30.
"He's still a young man," said Kidney yesterday. "You're always hoping you'll get to 32 or 33, if he gets to 30. . . He's had problems with that knee before. I can't ever make any guarantees about any guys, I wouldn't second-guess that, there have been issues with it."
There are few more frustrating experiences for a professional sportsman than watching your team-mates while being unable to contribute and Ferris has felt this more than most. Given his ultra-physical approach to a sport defined by its collisions, it would be easy to conclude that it is Ferris' addiction to contact that has cost him injury-wise, but the player believes a lot of it is down to misfortune.
"No, I don't think it's got anything to do with the way I play," said Ferris. "I think it's just bad luck. When I did the knee against Aironi, it wasn't in a big tackle or anything; the scrum wheeled around and their tight-head prop fell on me when my knee wasn't braced.
"There is a massive psychological challenge to injury but over the years, unfortunately, it's something I have become used to, so I can handle the mental aspect to it. You just focus on getting right.
"I'm not setting any targets, we'll just have to see how it goes. It was sore when I tried to run but I'm not in any great pain; it's more frustration than anything else, not being able to help your club or your country. Watching the boys against France last weekend was very tough. You just want to get out there and do your bit, but. . ."
Ferris said the defeat to France last weekend was particularly gut-wrenching because it was a game that Ireland could, should and would have won if they had less of an error count.
"You don't mind holding your hands up when you've lost by 30 points and have been beaten by a better team, but when you lose by a couple of points it's really hard," he said.
"France were not better than Ireland and I think the whole country and any player or pundit would say that. We were just very unlucky that we didn't put them to bed earlier and get the win, but that is what rugby is all about -- you need to take your chances and we didn't do that.
"You want to try and get your hands on the ball and perhaps it was a case of trying to force it," he added. "You might not drop a ball for months and months in training and then in a match you knock a couple on.
"Maybe it's a concentration thing, that we're switching off at times. Declan always alludes to the fact that we were losing games because it's our own fault, not because the opposition is better than us, and I strongly agree with that. It's up to us to make those passes stick and then we'll run in more scores."
He will not be involved but Ferris is convinced that Ireland are heading in the right direction and will prove as much against Scotland in Murrayfield next weekend.
"Scotland do look a bit short on confidence," said Ferris. "Dan Parks is kicking the leather off the ball when they have some exciting backs who can run with it, so it's quite weird the way they want to play the game.
"But against France they showed they are more than capable of scoring tries and (Sean) Lamont looks to be a very dangerous player and they have some very good players in the pack. But if we go over there and cut out the mistakes, I definitely think we will kick back and get the win."