Just how much more will Stephen Ferris be able to take?
Stephen Ferris is a name synonymous with rugby excellence.
Alas, his is a name synonymous with injury, too. And each time he is sidelined, the question is asked: how much longer can his body continue to take this sort of punishment?
The nature of the game Ferris plays — a fearlessly aggressive brand in which unyielding physicality is the main ingredient — makes injury inevitable. Ferris shirks nothing, as a result of which there is a price to be paid.
He never fails to put his body on the line. His commitment is total. But, as his medical record shows, courage like that takes its toll.
As a result of repeated surgery he has a knee devoid of cartilage, with bone rubbing on bone.
He is required to adhere to a wholly-personal training regime designed specifically to keep him fit enough to play. In that respect he is dependent on Ulster strength and conditioning guru, Jonny Davis, who uses the term modified training to describe Ferris’s schedule.
Prior to May’s Heineken Cup final Davis said: “If you look at his game profile over the past five or six seasons you will see that Stephen has played more high-end competitive games this year and that’s down to careful management.
“His ratio of playing time to training is 1.2; in other words he’s training 100 minutes in the week and playing 80 minutes on a Friday night. We know how many metres we can cover in the week with him without his knee reacting.
“We have to look after his joints because when you had the significant trauma that he has had to his knee — the removal of cartilage and the ligament damage sustained — if he was to cover the same metres as some others in training then he just couldn’t play.
“There was a lot of concern after his last knee surgery that he might not make it back. What we have done has been in consultation with the surgeons and in getting feedback from Stephen himself on his knee.
“He has returned in better form than he had been showing because he’s not trying to struggle through injuries. Hopefully he will continue to be an asset to Ulster for the next three, four or five years to come.”
But Mike McGurn, recognised as a world-class fitness and conditioning coach, has misgivings.
As Ireland’s head of strength and conditioning for six years, during which he was involved in 82 test matches, he got to know Ferris well.
“Stephen is naturally powerful. He was born that way and he has enhanced that power in the gym,” he explained.
“Because he is so powerful, he is creating a lot of stresses on his joints — ankles, hips and knees. So it’s just a matter of the body not being able to handle the freakish pressure that he is putting on those joints.”
Having been St Helen’s S&C supremo in 2000-01 when they won rugby league’s Challenge Cup, Super League and World Club Champions treble, after which he was head-hunted by then-Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan, McGurn (below) knows his football.
He remembers meeting Ferris in Japan in 2005 when he power-cleaned 135kgs.
“That was just phenomenal for a 20-year-old. It just gives you some idea of his strength. So if you couple that with his natural power you can see why his body struggles to handle that intensity,” McGurn said.
“He’s a really combative player, but unless he changes his style of play —which would be hard for him to do at this stage of his career — and avoids some of that contact, there’s not going to be much longevity,” he warned.
“His is a very physical game and he actually embraces that physicality, which has been great because usually he has come off the winner.
“But unfortunately the human body wasn’t made to do what Stevie gets it to do on the rugby pitch. Your bones can be as strong as you like, but your tendons and ligaments can only hold you together for so long and that’s where he’s damaging himself.
“He’s a smashing lad and he does a great job. But will he change his style? Personally I doubt it because that’s what makes him tick.
“If he does, that might give him an extra three or four years, which is what we’d all like to see for him because his career really has been disrupted by injury.
“Pound for pound, he and David Wallace are the two hardest I worked with. And what happened to David?” McGurn asked rhetorically of the former Munster, Ireland and Lions flanker, forced to quit by a knee injury
“Exactly. The same as could happen to Stevie — injury after injury until finally the body can’t take any more.”
The blows he’s overcome
Stephen Ferris has made 101 appearances for Ulster and won 35 Ireland caps.
But for a series of injuries, those totals would have had much greater.
Those injuries — hand, back, hip, calf and knee — have come at crucial periods, denying him participation in some huge matches.
Most of his major injuries — at least one of them of career-threatening severity — have been knee-related. But, worryingly, twice during this year he has been floored by ankle problems.
The first of those meant it was touch and go if he would be fit to face Munster in last season’s Heineken Cup quarter-final.
Now the second means he will not be lining out against the Springboks on Saturday. And this is a Lions season.
In 2009 a dislocated finger forced his early exit from Ireland’s Grand Slam-clinching decider against Wales at the Millennium Stadium.
Thus, having played a key role in the victories over France, Italy, England and Scotland, he wasn’t on the pitch for the final whistle and the biggest moment in Irish rugby’s recent history.
Nevertheless his form in 2008-09 earned Ferris a Lions place the tour of South Africa. A calf injury kept him out of the opening fixture but he was a replacement for the game against Golden Lions and as a starter against Cheetahs.
He scored an excellent try in each and was tipped for a Test place until a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee — sustained in training — ended his tour.
He played in four of Ireland’s five Six Nations matches in 2010, but missed that summer’s tour of Australia and New Zealand. He returned in the autumn, however, scoring against New Zealand and Argentina, his only international tries to date.
But another knee injury — suffered in Ulster’s 2010-11 Heineken Cup rout of Aironi in Italy — ultimately required major surgery.
Initially Ferris thought he would miss the championship opener in Italy, but would be fit to face France in Dublin a week later.
Instead he missed the entire series and Ulster’s Heineken Cup quarter-final against Northampton, with injury sidelining him for seven months.
Again he came back, just in time to make that autumn’s World Cup in which he was outstanding.
Last season he played in all five Six Nations games, but then missed Ireland’s trip to New Zealand in June. Now he is out of the first two Guinness Series matches and looks like missing the third, too.
With Ferris having been sidelined for a month with a back problem, coach Declan Kidney had released him from the Irish camp in the hope of seeing him put in a fitness-confirming shift for Ulster against Edinburgh.
Instead he picked up a fresh, unrelated ankle injury.