The Lions tour could be the launching pad for a career in South African rugby for Ulster’s Stephen Ferris — but not for at least another two years.
The 23-year-old, who is about to tour South Africa with the Lions, is under contract at Ravenhill for the next two seasons — but after that may consider a move abroad.
“My immediate future is with Ulster,” stressed Ferris.
“I am fully committed to Ulster but I think every player at some stage wants to have a new life experience, to get out there and try something different.
“Maybe some time in the future I will play my rugby in France, maybe even South Africa. That would be something different, a real challenge.
“To play somewhere else for a year or two would be brilliant but Ulster is my home and I’ve started my career here and would like to finish my career here as well,” he said.
Ferris has experienced a meteoric rise to the top of the rugby world, establishing himself in the Ireland team this season while winning the Grand Slam — the country’s first since 1948 — in the process. Then came the call-up to the Lions squad.
“I couldn’t have imagined how things would turn out for me this season, definitely not. Six months ago I was wearing an Ulster shirt week in week out.
“I was playing some good rugby and was called up by Ireland for the autumn internationals.
“I got my chance in the first game (against Canada), played a blinder and ended up starting another couple of games. I carried my form into the Six Nations and now I’m on the Lions tour. Sometimes players wait their whole career for a chance like this and it has happened to me in a few months.
“It has been pretty crazy and I haven’t taken it in yet.
“We fly out on Sunday and the first game is on May 30 so it’s all pretty hectic.
“I’m really looking forward to it. The Lions is the top team to have on your CV, the pinnacle of the sport.
“To get selected for the Lions is a great feeling and will hopefully stand me in good stead for the future.
“I am hoping to get a run out at some stage and there’s a lot of rugby to be played before the Tests.
“It’s important to impress in the games leading up to the Tests.
“If I can do that then I will give myself a decent chance of playing in the Tests. There’s a lot of competition for places, especially in my position,” explained the back row forward.
“The chances of the Lions winning the series are good. In Six Nations games there’s usually only three points or a try between the teams and I think it will be exactly the same in South Africa — the Tests will be very close.
“Our aim is obviously to win at least two out of the three Tests, preferably all three,” he added.
Ferris has had little time to reflect on his fairytale season.
“As soon as the Six Nations was over I was straight back playing for Ulster so there was no time to think about the Grand Slam.
“I have a few weeks off when I get back from the Lions tour so there might be some time to reflect and allow it all to sink in then. Maybe I’ll sit back and watch the matches and actually get to enjoy them.”
But despite so much success at such a relatively young age, there’s no danger of Ferris resting on his laurels.
He maintained: “There is room for improvement in the Ireland team — a few of the players felt in some of the Grand Slam matches we were only firing at 60 or 70%. We still have things we can work on.
“We had three away games in the Six Nations last year so we’ll have three home this time around. It will be great to have an extra home game, while the two ‘biggies’ — England and France — are away. But we beat Wales in their own backyard so we can beat anybody.”
And Ferris is relishing Ireland’s return to the refurbished Lansdowne Road — now the Aviva Stadium — next year.
“I actually played in the last game at the old Lansdowne Road so to play in the first at the refurbished stadium would be a nice double. It would be class to pull on the green jersey at the new stadium.
“Added to this, there are lots of good young players coming through in Ireland so the future looks bright. The talent out there is scary. It’s just great to be part of the whole Ireland set-up.”
Ferris’s big ambition with Ulster is to make it through to the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup.
He said: “When you watch the Heineken Cup and see Munster and Leinster doing so well, it makes me want to do well in the tournament for Ulster.
“Hopefully we will get a decent draw next season and make it through to the knockout stages. It’s 10 years since Ulster progressed beyond the group so we want to break that duck. Getting out of the group would be massive for us because it’s been so long.
“Ulster are a bit up and down at the moment. We get a good result then a bad result. It’s about finding a bit of consistency.
“Any games we lose tend to be by small margins. If we could turn narrow defeats into narrow wins it would make a huge difference and hopefully we can do that next season and be well up the Magners League table.
“We beat European champions Munster in their own backyard during the last campaign so we should be capable of challenging in the Magners League.
“We want to start playing well and when that happens you really enjoy your rugby.”
A Grand Slam and a Lions tour certainly add to the enjoyment as well.