Six Nations: Stephen Ferris primed for key battle
Hunting down Croft is a huge ask... but vital to Ireland's hopes
The respect Stephen Ferris and Tom Croft have for one another really could not be any more obvious.
Those who will pack down on the blindside of Irish and English back rows at Twickenham tomorrow evening have total respect and regard for their opposite numbers.
The two world-class number sixes became friends on the 2009 British and Irish Lions' tour of South Africa, with Croft making the Test team after injury saw Ferris taking an early flight home.
Croft had not even been been in the original party; his call-up came only when Alan Quinlan was given a 12-weeks suspension for eye-gouging Leinster's Leo Cullen in the Irish rivals' Heineken Cup semi-final clash at Croke Park.
Ferris was ahead of the Leicester flanker in the Lions' pecking order until the former's unfortunate injury saw the latter handed an unexpected break. Croft grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
There in no animosity on the part of the Ulster ace.
Instead Ferris lauds the man who was the beneficiary of his misfortune nearly three years ago. “Crofty is fantastic.
“He's a really good athlete, somebody who I got on really well with in 2009 with the Lions in South Africa.
“It'll be a great contest this weekend between the two of us,” Ferris said, his eyes gleaming in anticipation.
“I've played against him a couple of times already this season with Ulster and he's a player.”
The meetings to which he refers were in the Heineken Cup, with the Tigers winning the November 19 Welford Road set-to 20-9 and Ulster more than avenging that by inflicting Leicester's heaviest ever European defeat — 41-7 — in the January 13 Pool 4 re-match at Ravenhill. With the honours even after those two club-level pairings, today will see the Croft-Ferris stalemate broken one way or another.
Both go into the fray in outstanding form; Ferris has made 2012 Six Nations tries for wingers Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble, while Croft bagged a great score against France in Paris last Sunday.
Pressed about his contribution as a try-maker, Ferris responds: “I'm improving, but I just feel more confident on the ball.
“When you're training with the lads it just kind of comes naturally. I'd like to get my hands on the ball a bit more but it's just the way the games pan out.
“We've so many good players on the team.
“I think one to 15 everyone would have been able to put away that pass and Trimby put in a good finish.
“I feel good, I'm feeling really confident at the minute. I think I'm improving week-in, week-out. I'm feeling fit and fresh and that's the main thing.”
And something he admires most about Croft's game?
“I'd love to have his lineout ability, he's brilliant in the lineout. That's something I have to work hard on every week in training,” Ferris reveals.
Croft is no less magnanimous is extolling his opposite number, one of whose knees has had all the cartilage removed.
“On one leg?” the English back row player says, making no attempt to conceal his admiration.
“He's a world-class player. In terms of not having a knee it doesn't seem to be stopping him. He is leading the way in that Irish side.
“He's a phenomenal player; he carries well, hits hard and his work-rate is similar to Chris Robshaw (England's captain). He seems to be everywhere.”
Croft does not need to be reminded of what happened when he and Ferris last went head-to-head in that Ulster-Leicester clash nine weeks ago. The memory is still fresh. And raw.
“We were caught very, very cold and had lost the game in the first 20-25 minutes,” is his recollection of the Tigers' four-try mauling, with Trimble, who lines out on Ireland's left wing tomorrow, touching down twice.
In Croft's eyes, last January Ravenhill was a re-run of nearly a year ago at the Aviva Stadium where fired-up Ireland beat England 24-8, thereby putting paid to the visitors' notions of a 13th Grand Slam. Ferris missed out on that, of course, that troublesome knee having caused him to miss all of last season's championship campaign.
“I was sitting in the pub having a pint watching it and admiring the boys, how good a job they had done,” is his memory of Ireland's performance a year ago almost to the day.
“It was a great day and hopefully we can repeat that.”
As he sees it, there is no good reason why not.
“We've a good record against England and we've been playing some good stuff, “ he reasons.
As for fatigue going into a fourth successive weekend of Six Nations action, Ferris says: “It's a been a good physical battle, but we're preparing ourselves for it.”
And the prospect of encountering Croft in the heat of battle? No fears there, either.
“Hopefully we cross paths a couple of times this weekend,”
Ferris beams. There will be a few sparks if they do.