While the on-field work and performances of Stephen Ferris invariably earn him the adulation of Ulster and Ireland supporters, it’s the unheralded, off-stage know-how of Jonny Davis which plays a huge part in ensuring the big number six’s on-going participation.
Working in tandem with physiotherapist Gareth Robinson, Ulster’s Strength and Conditioning sage has managed to keep Ferris on the road this season.
When he underwent more knee surgery followed by yet more rehab, it was Davis who was there each step of the long road back to recovery. And he is still there, keeping the ace in the pack motoring.
“Modified training,” is his description of Ferris’s situation.
“Stephen has done very well this year. If you look at his game profile over the past five or six seasons you will see that he has played more high-end competitive games this year and that’s down to careful management,” he tells you. “His ratio of playing time to training is 1.2; in other words he’s training 100 minutes in the week and playing 80 minutes on a Friday night.
“We know how many metres we can cover in the week with him without his knee reacting. We have to look after his joints because when you had the significant trauma that he has had to his knee — the removal of cartilage and the ligament damage sustained — if he was to cover the same metres as some others in training then he just couldn’t play.
“There was a lot of concern after his last knee surgery that he might not make it back. What we have done has been in consultation with the surgeons and in getting feedback from Stephen himself on his knee.
“He has returned in better form than he had been showing because he’s not trying to struggle through injuries. Hopefully he will continue to be a tremendous asset to Ulster Rugby for the next three, four or five years to come.”
So a la Davis, the world-class flanker now is ready for this weekend's Heineken Cup semi-final as a result of careful management. Ferris, Ulster, Ireland and the Lions owe the 34-year-old S&C wizard a huge debt of gratitude.
Davis highlights the need for all players to be handled properly in order to maximise their talent. For that to happen, they have to be treated as individuals, with all aspects of their lives taken into consideration.
Bodies under stress start to break down: fact. When that happens, players are prone to suffer health-wise. Insufficient sleep is another factor which has a massive influence on their ability to perform.
Age plays a big part, too. Paddy Wallace (32) and Craig Gilroy (21) cannot be treated in some one-size-does-all manner.
“They’re all individuals and you have to accommodate that in trying to ensure their best performances as athletes come the business end of the season,” he says.
Close training time and game time management is vital, with a view to players being able to perform in the matches required of them.
With everything geared towards producing peak performances at the right moments he knows who can do what and when they will be able to do it best. Efficiency is everything and the means of ensuring it is totally scientific.
He knows, too, about the risk of peaking too early, the possibility of burn-out or the danger of pushing others too far, too fast, too often. These are athletes, not robots, and he is ever-mindful of that fact. His is a holistic approach. ‘Health’ is a huge area and all parts of it — mental as well as physical — must be built into the equation.
Davis’ empathy for those he treats may very well owe something to the fact that he himself was the victim of a career-ending rugby injury. The Belfast High School educated winger — Stephen Hilditch was his headmaster — is former Irish Schools’ sprint champion, his time for 100 metres having been a gold medal-winning 10.72 seconds.
His rugby honours include three Ulster caps on the wing plus appearances for Ireland’s under-21s,19s and schools.
At Dungannon, where they know a thing or two about wing play having seen it at its best courtesy of men like Tyrone Howe and Ronnie Carey, they reckoned he was good enough to match that pair’s achievements. But a particularly bad left arm-break coupled with two fractured discs in his neck sidelined him for 18 months. And when, having returned, he re-fractured the same two discs, that was it — career over
“That’s really why I got into high performance sport strength and conditioning,” he says, revealing a silver lining to that dark personal cloud.
It was unfortunate for him as an individual — there’s that word again — that a promising career ended prematurely. But one wonders how many others, like Stephen Ferris, will benefit as a result of his excellence in another field?