Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Ferris faces temptation to take far east riches

Stephen Ferris could face a big decision this summer

Could Stephen Ferris, Ulster's highest profile player, end up playing his rugby in Japan next season?

That is the intriguing possibility in the wake of the Ireland and 2009 Lions flanker having been given a thumbs-up to resume playing as from the start of next season.

With his IRFU contract expiring on June 30, negotiations will be starting soon – and a number of overseas club are weighing up a move for the 27-year-old.

There is global interest, with the Japanese thought to be top of the queue.

That is because Japan is hosting the 2019 Rugby World Cup and in a bid to cash in on the massive interest that is causing, clubs there are trying to recruit as many big names as possible.

Their emphasis on players perhaps past their absolute peak but still capable of a very high standard and able to attract generous salaries as a result.

With Ferris now expected to be fully fit and playing again at the start of next season, theoretically that puts him he in a decent bargaining position when the talking starts.

But what if the IRFU is wary of taking a chance? That would undermine his position, as would any suspicion of attempted manipulation.

Big, big questions and decisions for the player, the Union and those overseas wooers.

But there are many issues to be considered. How reliable is Ferris's fitness? His record is not good.

Having suffered a calf injury in last May's Heineken Cup final defeat by Leinster at Twickenham, he missed Ireland's three-Test tour of New Zealand the following month.

He was unable to play in either of Ireland's Guinness Series Tests against South Africa and Argentina last November, since when he has missed the entire RBS Six Nations campaign.

That is the second time in three seasons that he has been absent for a whole Six Nations series, the same thing having happened in 2011.

As well as being unable to play at all for Ireland, since the Heineken Cup final his on-field time for Ulster has totalled fractionally over three hours – a full shift against Munster in what was his 100th appearance for the province on September 14, a further 67 minutes three weeks later against Connacht and 47 minutes against Edinburgh on November 2 when he sustained the ankle which has ruled him out of action ever since.

Three weeks before Christmas, Ferris underwent surgery. On February 27 he had a second operation to his ankle, after which it was confirmed that he would be out of action for a further three months following which he would fit to resume.

Bone fragments were removed in that operation, described as having been "successful". Ulster Rugby confirmed: "He is now expected to make a full and complete recovery".

But amid speculation as to whether the IRFU would be willing to enter into a further expensive contract with a player whose availability has been ravaged by injuries, others are keeping a very close eye on the unfolding situation.

They include those Japanese suitors, although it is not thought that Ferris has had any formal negotiations with anyone. Yet.

But it is not inconceivable that those from the east could make him a very-hard-to-refuse offer.

Up until now New Zealanders and Australians have been at the top of their list, though plenty of others from Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, the United States, Malaysia, China, South Korea, India and the Philippines have made the move to the Land of the Rising Sun.

England's James Haskell and former Scotland lock Scott MacLeod are the prime Home Countries examples, but probably the best-known rugby name is Brad Thorn, the 2011 World Cup winner with the All Blacks, who was a stellar post-tournament short-term signing for Japan Top League outfit Fukuoka Sanix Blues.

Other All Blacks playing in Japan include Jerry Collins and Rodney So'oialo, while Sonny Bill Williamson has turned out for Panasonic Wild Knights.

There has been no shortage of Kiwis and Wallabies earning good money from playing in Japan at the latter stages of top-flight careers.

Australia's George Gregan played for the Suntory Sungoliaths, where South African 2007 World Cup winners Fourie du Preez and Danie Rossouw were reunited with Eddie Jones.

And Australia's George Smith turned down the chance to play for the Wallabies at the World Cup in order to play for the club.

A fourth member of South Africa's 2007 World Cup winning side, Jaque Fourie, joined Panasonic Wild Knights in November 2011.

So Japan already has drawn rugby stars. Might it now attract Ferris?

The next few months could prove very interesting as the negotiations get underway.

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