Concern over Stephen Ferris’s availability for Sunday’s Heineken Cup showdown with Munster in the wake of the ankle sprain he suffered in Ulster’s PRO12 victory over Aironi intensified on Tuesday night.
A barrage of tweets confirmed Ulster supporters’ fears that the British and Irish Lions blindside flanker is not going to win his race to be fit for the quarter-final at Thomond Park.
The tenor of the overwhelming majority of the comments posted was that Ulster appear to have written him off as having no chance of playing on Sunday.
But Ulster spokesperson Lyndsey Irwin on Tuesday night dismissed that as “people perhaps reading more into our earlier statement than was intended.”
That terse statement, issued on Monday afternoon after Ferris’s scan, read: “Stephen underwent a scan this morning which confirmed there was no bony damage to his left ankle. However there is significant muscle and ligament damage. He is doubtful for the weekend.”
In the wake of a deluge of postings suggesting that this amounted to confirmation that Ferris will not be available, her response was: “Nothing has changed; we have issued no statement since yesterday so people perhaps are reading more into our earlier statement than was intended.
“Yes, there is a doubt as to whether or not Stephen will be available, but he certainly is not being ruled out at this stage.
“He is receiving treatment and we continue to hope that he will be able to play.
“Things are as before, it's a case of wait and see.
“Brian (McLaughlin) will update the media at tomorrow’s (Wednesday’s) announcement of the provisional squad.”
On Tuesday night former Ulster skipper and Irish international flanker Andy Ward said that even if only 70 per cent fit, Ferris should be included.
A member of the legendary 1999 European Cup-winning Ulster side, Ward said: “Yeah, I’d play him at 70 per cent, no problem. You have to.
“Give him an injection and get him in there. He’s vital to the team.”
Recalling his own experience whilst playing for Ulster in the Heineken Cup in December 2002, Ward added: “I remember playing against Biarritz when I’d that much stuff put into my ankle that I couldn’t feel it.
“I’d so much fluid in my joint the thing was slushing, for goodness sake.
“I thought I was walking around on a hot water bottle,” Ward said.
Highlighting Ferris’s importance this weekend, Ward added: “Playing at Thomond Park is a massive task, but at the same time, if he’s in the mix and they’re coming out with the full package, I’d fancy us.”
Such is his appreciation of Ulster’s world-class blindside that when asked if he would include Ferris ‘provided he can walk’, Ward’s reply was: “Yes, absolutely, that’s how important he is to the whole thing.
“Psychologically, for the rest of the players to see him run out with the team is massive,” Ward explained.
Highlighting Ferris’s all-round qualities, Ward said: “He just adds so much.
“He’s a great ball-carrier, he’s great in defence and his tackling is immense.
“It would be a really massive loss if he didn’t make it,” Ward added.
His choice of Ulster's loose forwards trio in the event of Ferris not being available would be Chris Henry at six, Pedrie Wannenburg at eight and Willie Faloon at seven.
“That’s still not a bad back row, but it’s not as strong physically as Ferris, Wannenburg and Henry,” he said.
Ward believes that aggression is the all-important ingredient required in order to grind out a result at Munster’s imposing Limerick citadel.
As Ward sees it, to have any chance of winning there, visiting sides must have the physical — and mental — strength to cope in what is a particularly intimidating environment.
“Munster are very physical, particularly at Thomond Park, so in a situation like that you’d want to have Ferris starting,” said Ward.
“He is a big-match player and matches don’t come much bigger than this one.”
Ulster also reached the quarter-finals last season, bowing out to Northampton.