THE scores were level at 6-6 and the opening half of Ireland’s World Cup pool game against Australia at Eden Park in Auckland was coming to an end.
Just time for one more scrum and not a lot else. Australia have the put-in. Will Genia, a small man physically but a totem of the Wallaby side in many senses, feeds his pack, then takes the ball from under the legs of his back row and, in his mind, he has a plan of attack, a plan that comes to an abrupt halt when a 6ft 4in, 17st blindside flanker from Ulster picks Genia up off his feet and hauls him downfield like he was putting out the rubbish.
Stephen Ferris took man and ball, carried both a good five metres – though some will swear it was double that – before hitting the floor, whereupon Genia was penalised for not releasing. The psychology of the moment was huge. If Australia didn’t know that Ireland weren’t about to fold like they’ve always done in the southern hemisphere then they knew it now. The stadium came alive. The Irish bench leapt to their feet in salute of Ferris’s work. His team-mates slapped him on the back in celebration. These are the things that matter in rugby. The little battles, the mind games, the laying down of a marker that tells your opponent: “We won’t be messed around today.” If that’s your message then it’s just as well to have a beast like Ferris playing postman.
If there’s a bigger tackler in the game today, then good luck to him. “He’s a special specimen,” says his forwards coach, Gert Smal, and, being a former South African back row, Smal knows about such things. Ireland coach Declan Kidney would have had many things on his wish-list heading into this Six Nations and one of the main hopes was that Ferris would be fit and well, which he is. It’s a relief, because he’s a man who has been dogged by knee problems over the years. He was invalided out of the Lions tour of South Africa in 2009 with one dodgy knee and missed all of last year’s championship with another.
Right now, as his performances for Ulster show, he is at peak fitness. He’s talking about the championship. You won’t get any long-range forecasts from Ferris. In that regard, he is as one with Kidney, a low-key coach whose policy of one game at a time hasn’t changed in the decade and a half he’s been coaching in the professional game.
So we’re on the subject of Wales, which is tasty enough to be honest given that it was the Welsh who knocked Ireland out of the World Cup, a let-down that came as a gigantic kick in the unmentionables for a side that thought they could create history by making the semi-finals for the first time. Ferris looks back on the World Cup with a lot of pride, but a wince of regret, too. He could have been forgiven for thinking that, after the victory over the Wallabies, something special was happening, but the Welsh did for them in the quarters.
And now it’s the Welsh again. “If we have ambitions of going on to win the Six Nations you have to win your first game, especially at home,” says Ferris. “There’s a massive rivalry with us getting beaten by them in the World Cup. It would be good to beat them and we’re more than capable of doing it. I suppose people probably think that we owe them one.”
Ireland have lost their last two Tests against the Welsh, the most recent being that sickener in Auckland, the one before being a controversial affair in Cardiff when a blunder by a touch judge helped Wales to score a try that eventually proved the difference between the teams. Ferris might not have been on the field that day – the dodgy knee again – but he felt the pain of the loss nonetheless. He feels it still.
“Wales play a good brand of rugby and have had a couple of good results against us recently. They’ll be feeling pretty confident, but it’s a pressure situation in the first weekend of the Six Nations. You have to win your first game to be in with a chance of winning the thing, so there is going to be a lot of pressure on both teams. We’ve got a good side, home advantage and everyone is feeling confident and looking forward to it.”
The Irish lads have every right to feel upbeat. For the first time ever, three provinces have made the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup, their combined numbers making for some fairly decent reading – played 18, won 15, lost two, drawn one. There’s already banter in the camp, some gentle joshing about who is going to come out on top when Ulster travel to Thomond Park to play Munster in the Heineken Cup quarter-final in April.
He wishes it didn’t have to be that way. He’d rather the provinces avoided each other, but, hey, it’s done and he’ll relish it when it comes, but not now. “Ulster are playing well and I have so much rugby to look forward to over the next few months,” he says. “It’s great. I’m buzzing. All the guys you are running around with in training are through to the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup (bar Ospreys’ Tommy Bowe, who’s no slouch). There’s Heineken winners throughout the Irish team. For me, personally, I just want to get on the team-sheet to play against Wales. I am not going to worry about the Heineken Cup until a couple of months down the line. Now it’s all about Ireland. This time last year, when Ulster made it through, my injury was still really at me. I was missing out on the Six Nations and I wasn’t sure when I was going to be back playing rugby. All the lads were out running around in front of 50,000 people every week and you are sitting at home watching it on TV with a bag of ice on your knee. There were some dark days, but that’s what rugby is all about. It’s not all about going out there and playing. Injury is just part and parcel of playing sport and it is about how you deal with it and bounce back.”
There was never any doubt that he would. It’s a hell of a back row they have. Ferris the wrecking ball at six, Sean O’Brien, the ultimate ball carrier, at seven, and Jamie Heaslip, the dynamic and clever footballer, at No.8. In the annals, as a trio, they must be getting up there with the immortals of 1948, the Grand Slam-winning back row of Bill McKay, Jim McCarthy and Des O’Brien. Others may say that, in Irish rugby history, there is no matching the triumvirate of the 1980s, Fergus Slattery, John O’Driscoll and the bold Willie Duggan.
Another Grand Slam for Ferris’s side would settle the argument for sure. There is a case to be made that, given all the Heineken Cup success – four Irish winners in the last six seasons – more should have been achieved on the international stage. It’s a view that the likes of Ferris would, no doubt, agree with while going out there in the coming weeks to try and do something about it.
Ferris has only ever completed one full Six Nations championship despite receiving the first of his 30 caps in the autumn of 2006. That championship was the 2009 version, the year Ireland won the Grand Slam. He’s as fit now as he was then. And as hungry.