My heart is with Ulster, says Stephen Ferris
Ulster, Ireland and Lions flanker Stephen Ferris has nailed his colours to the mast in declaring that his heart belongs to his native province.
"I love Ulster," he said. "I love Ulster Rugby. Ulster is my home. It's the place I love."
For months it has been speculated the back row star – a hero of Ireland's 2009 Grand Slam success – will be on his way at the end of the season, with Japan touted as a possible destination.
But even if – as looks increasingly likely – that happens, Ferris is and always will be a proud Ulsterman first and foremost.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph at Methodist College's Pirrie Park sports fields just down the road from Ravenhill, he wore his heart on his sleeve.
He was there in his capacity as an HSBC ambassador, to coach disadvantaged 13 to 17 year olds as part of a banking giants-backed Prince's Trust Fairbridge programme under which participants will benefit from exclusive rugby sessions with some of the oval ball game's biggest stars.
Last year HSBC – principal sponsors of the Lions – announced a partnership with the Prince's Trust Fairbridge programme, donating £5 million over five years to support some of the most vulnerable young people in the UK.
The beneficiaries are those who have either been or are in danger of being excluded from school. The Fairbridge programme is designed to help them back into mainstream education, training and ultimately employment.
The aim of rugby training sessions is to help teach the game's core values of courage, discipline and respect to those attending.
Ferris's co-HSBC rugby ambassadors include former Lion Jason Robinson and former dual-code Wales international Jonathan Davies.
Yesterday, when he took time out for this exclusive interview, Ferris spoke about 'we', 'us' and 'our' each time he referred to Ulster for whom he has played on 102 occasions. Everything he said made it obvious this is where his heart lies.
His assessment of Ulster's season told that story perfectly. "I think we've had our ups and downs, like most teams do in a season," he said.
"Unfortunately our period when we weren't firing on all cylinders was probably the most crucial part of the season for us going into the Heineken Cup quarter-final.
"For me, personally, we just didn't turn up for that," he added.
Describing his feelings for the province and the game here, he continued: "I love Ulster, I love Ulster Rugby. I love what Humph (Director of Rugby, David Humphreys) is doing. I don't think he gets enough credit for what he has achieved over the past four or five years.
"Brian McLaughlin as well – the amount of effort and hours that he put in.
"Now Mark (Anscombe, McLaughlin's replacement as head coach) has come in this year and has done a good job, especially with the number of injuries he had in the middle of the season."
Ferris continued: "Ulster is my home. It's the place I love. And I love supporting the boys even though I'd rather be out there playing with them than sitting watching from the sidelines. But that's the way it goes and for me everything happens for a reason.
"I'll make sure that if I get another opportunity with Ulster I'll grab it with both hands and be back in there starting again."
Now what exactly did that mean? Might we yet see Ferris in a white shirt?
Whilst unwilling, at this juncture, to discuss his plans for the future, his reply when asked as to his fitness at this stage was telling, too.
Invited to say when he expects to play again, his immediate response was: "Next season. The start of next season."
But where? Ah, that forbidden territory. So we move on.
"It's frustrating," he said of his latest injury derailment.
"I was out a few years back with my knee so because of that (experience) I kinda understand where I'm at at the minute. It's more frustrating mentally than physically.
"It's grand being able to go in and lift weights. There's been a lot of people injured this season so it has been a little bit easier because you've had different faces coming and going.
"And then to see the likes of Paddy McAllister who didn't touch a rugby ball all season, that puts things in perspective. You could be a lot worse off.
"There have been more tragic things than my injury that have happened in Ulster Rugby this season. You look back on that," he said, as the unspoken words about the tragic deaths of Nevin Spence, his brother Graham and their father Noel tail off.
"I was chatting to Rory (Best) yesterday and he said there's a lot worse things happen than not getting picked for the Lions or being out for six months with an injury.
"That puts it all in perspective. You've just got to stay positive," he reflected.
The opinion of the 2009 Lion on the omission of his Ulster and Ireland team-mate from this summer's squad for the tour of Australia was frank, too.
"I was really surprised. I thought he was a certainty to get selected," he said.