This time last year Stephen Ferris wasn’t quite sure what the future held.
A seemingly innocuous fall — the sort you see any number of times in a rugby match — during Ulster’s 43-6 rout of Aironi in their Pool 4 clash at Stadio Zaffanella in January 2011 was the only blot on Brian McLaughlin’s side’s landscape that day as they marched into the Heineken Cup knock-out stages for the first time in 12 years.
At the time Ferris accepted he would not be able to face Italy two weeks later in the opening match of Ireland’s 2011 Six Nations schedule.
He was optimistic, however, about being ready to line out against France the weekend after that.
He was wrong; very, very wrong. His knee injury required surgery and there were real fears that his career might be over.
He was sidelined for seven months and only just managed to make it to last autumn’s World Cup — in which he excelled.
He has been on fire ever since, witness three Man-of-the-Match awards en route to the Heineken Cup final, his recent coronation as Ulster Rugby’s Personality of the Year and a inclusion as one of five nominees for the still-to-be-decided European Rugby Player of the Year title.
Against all the odds, 2011-12 has been an exceptional campaign for the 6ft 4ins, 17st 8lbs star.
In the circumstances it is hardly surprising that he is delighted at the prospect of taking things to a new high this evening at Twickenham where Ulster face holders, Leinster, in the mother of all Heineken Cup finals.
Ferris may be a British and Irish Lion and a Grand Slam winner, but even he acknowledges that this game is going to be something very special indeed.
“To be playing for Ulster — your own province — against Leinster in the Heineken Cup final at Twickenham is massive, really massive,” he says.
“This is something we have talked about and dreamed about. There has been an awful lot of hard work in getting here and there have been some dark days, too.
“But it has all come together and we seem to be peaking at just the right time.”
Magheraberry’s best-known resident has experienced good and bad days at Twickenham, as well as in the Ulster number six jersey.
“I played there in 2010 when Ireland beat England, and I was there a couple of months ago when England gave us a bit of a hiding, so obviously I have mixed emotions about the place,” he admits.
“This is different, though. This time you’re going to Twickenham with your team-mates, the guys you work and train with, week-in, week-out, and in some cases guys you have been with for years.
“That’s going to make it a wee bit more special.”
Significantly, whilst most pundits believe Ulster have surpassed themselves by reaching the final, Ferris insists that the players don’t share that view.
“I had a chat with David Humphreys recently and he said that we’d exceeded everybody’s expectations by getting to the final,” Ferris says.
“But as players I think we all knew we were more than capable of doing that. Even when the draw was made and we were in a pool with Clermont and Leicester, we didn’t feel that was beyond us. I know a lot of other people did, but we genuinely thought we could get out of that.
“We just decided to go hard at it and try to get two good home wins against them. We did that, we sneaked into the quarter-finals as a result and since then we just seem to have kicked on in Europe.”
They certainly have; quarter-final victories over Munster at Thomond Park — where the hosts had never lost a knock-out game in Europe — and Edinburgh at the Aviva Stadium in the penultimate round now have taken them to Twickeham.
And, with a day to go, the notion that they might upset the odds appears to be gathering momentum.
But forget any nonsense that Ulster’s ‘name is on the trophy’ by virtue of some pre-destined good fortune. Ferris does not buy into that at all; as far as he is concerned, Ulster are where they are having earned the right by dint of sweat, ambition and desire.
“Maybe if a bounce or two of the ball had gone our way you could argue the point, but that victory in Munster was down to real hard work and our being able to win the match rather than any bits of luck going our way.
“It was just a great team effort from one to 15 and a performance that showed the rest of Europe just how good a side Ulster have become. We know how to win tight matches,” he stressed.
“In the knock-out stages there are no bonus points for tries or anything like that; it’s just about winning. That’s what we have done and that’s why we’re at Twickenham.”