Ulster’s hopes that Irish and Lions flanker Stephen Ferris might be fit to face Northampton at Ravenhill on Saturday week in the second of their back-to-back Heineken Cup Pool 4 matches have been dashed.
Ferris underwent surgery yesterday in an attempt to repair the ankle tendon damage he suffered while playing for Ulster against Edinburgh in the PRO12 five weeks ago today.
Ironically it happened in a comeback match to prove his fitness for the Guinness Series.
Initially, Ireland ruled him out of the first two of last month’s three matches, their hope being that he might be back to face Argentina. That proved overly-optimistic.
Until recently, Ulster were hopeful of including him in next week’s Belfast clash with Northampton, but that too was way off the mark.
Last night they issued a terse statement which notably avoided guesswork as to a comeback date.
“Stephen will be reviewed in the coming weeks to establish an accurate time period for recovery and to assess when he will fit to return to play,” it read.
Meanwhile ex-Northampton captain, Pat Lam (below), believes tomorrow night’s Franklin’s Gardens clash with Ulster could be a foretaste of next May’s Heineken Cup final.
Lam, who led Northampton to a 9-8 cup final victory over Munster in 2000 – the season after David Humphreys steered Ulster to the pinnacle of European club rugby – reckons both will be in the Aviva Stadium showpiece and there is a precedent.
In 1997-8, Bath and Brive emerged from Pool 3 and ended up meeting in the final.
Lam’s belief in Ulster’s credentials is not based solely on results to date this season. In tipping them to make it to a second successive Heineken Cup final he highlighted the presence of a trio of New Zealanders, all of whom he knows well.
“They’ve got a couple of my ex-players - John Afoa and Jared Payne - and an old coaching associate, Mark Anscombe, is there,” he said.
When asked who he thought would contest next May’s final, Lam replied: “Ulster and probably Northampton. That’s where the heart wants to go.”
Ulster and the Saints share the dubious distinction of having lost the finals in 2012 and 2011 respectively. But having made it through to the showdown so recently, both know what is required to reach a final.
Lam was among the crowd of 74,456 in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium where Northampton surrendered a 22-6 interval lead against Leinster in the 2011 Heineken Cup final and ended up losing 33-22.
But as he sees it, today’s older, wiser Saints are good enough to do what proved too much for them two years ago.
“I watched the game against Leinster and I thought they had it,” he admitted.
“The problem was the team thought they had it until maybe the second half because they were certainly going strong in the first half.”