Heineken Cup: Ulster ready to hit a higher gear, says Ferris
Stephen Ferris exudes a reassuring calm on the eve of the coming storm. There is a discernable self-belief about him. This is no mere front for his words and his body-language are in unison.
He oozes the conviction of a man full of confidence in himself and the team for which he plays.
So while ASM Clermont Auvergne’s record at Stade Marcel Michelin would terrify most, it does not intimidate Ferris to whom the concept of fear is alien.
He is intent on making up for lost time, for which reason he has motivation a-plenty. Today is the biggest Heineken Cup game in which he has played, injury having robbed him of the opportunity to participate in last season’s quarter-final against Northampton Saints in Milton Keynes.
“I got a taste of what it was all about when I was over there with the guys and I definitely want to play in a quarter-final, so it’s a must-win game for us,” is his take on tomorrow afternoon’s Pool 4 decider (3.40 UK time).
“I remember pitching up at the stadium and it was 22 or 23 degrees pitchside. Sun was shining, dry ball, two good running sides. I was nearly ready to put the boots on and go out there half-fit. I just felt such a buzz and I wasn’t even playing.”
At that he turns his focus on today's opposition, speculating as to the mood within the French camp.
“They’d a big win last weekend (82-0 away to Aironi) and they’ll be sitting thinking maybe they’ll just turn up, get four points and go through to the next round,” he tells you.
If so, they are reckoning without Ulster’s phenomenal number six.
“We’re going over there full of confidence; it’s definitely the biggest game for Ulster that I’ve been involved in,” he says, reminding himself and those of us listening to him of the importance of the occasion.
He has no doubt that there is another gear in the Ulster side which performed so magnificently in last Friday night’s destruction of Leicester Tigers whose 41-7 defeat was the heaviest they have ever suffered in 15 seasons of Heineken Cup involvement. Nor is he alone in that belief.
“Johann (Muller) and I were chatting to each other in the gym and we think we can definitely give an extra 15 or 20% individually. So if we can do that collectively as a team” he muses.
That said, Ferris feels it is essential Ulster do so, for he feels they will have to be even better than was the case a week ago if they are to lower Clermont’s colours today.
“The performance we put in on Friday night isn’t going to win us the game over in France; it might get us close but if we’re going to win the game we’re going to have to up our performance again,” he reckons.
He takes much heart from the fact that Ulster’s graph has been moving impressively in the right direction, with each recent display better than the previous one.
“I think that’s something we’ve been doing. The Munster game was a good performance, the Edinburgh game was a better performance,” he points out, without reference to the obvious fact that against Leicester, Ulster took things to a still-higher level.
“We’re very clinical at the minute,” he reminds you, and the facts – bonus point wins in each of the past three Heineken Cup outings and five of the last six in all competitions — confirm his view of progress.
“Every opportunity we get over in Clermont we’ll need to take,” he adds, returning to the task ahead.
The fact that Ulster have never won in France is a figurative monkey he and his colleagues are keen to get off their backs. At that he highlights Ulster’s track record of having actually won in places where, previously, they had not been able to do so.
“A couple of years ago we were talking about winning in England,” he recalls. “We’ve beaten Bath a couple of times over there now. We’ve beat Scarlets there last year, too.
“So this is the last one – to go over there to France and get a good win. It’s going to be very, very tough but, like I said, we’ve got a lot of confidence.
“We definitely believe we can go over there and get a win.”
Imagining the Clermont players going through the names of the Ulster squad, he says: “I’m sure the opposition are flicking through the pre-match magazine and sitting looking through our team.
“They’ll see World Cup winners – John Afoa and (Ruan) Pienaar. Muller and these guys — our foreign signings are unbelievable. Myself and Rory Best who were in the World Cup (with Ireland) and all the international players in our team are unbelievable.
“If I was sitting in the opposition changing room looking at our team sheet I’d definitely be scared of going out onto the pitch and facing them.”