Paddy Wallace thrilled to make Ulster return
But centre puts focus on injured Ferris
It said it all about Paddy Wallace's psyche that even with him about to play his first game for the senior team since last February, after recuperating from a serious knee injury, he still found time for encouraging words about Stephen Ferris.
It is believed the star flanker is likely to be given another short-term contract extension by Ulster after over a year spent recuperating from a shattered ankle which felled him back in November 2012.
With the 28-year-old having been given a six-month contract back in June – which is due to expire next week – Wallace has added to the growing belief that Ferris will be granted more time as the veteran centre reckons that the Ireland and Lions star could play again in the New Year.
Wallace said this week: "If you had asked me in October, I would have said it was unlikely that Stephen could make it.
"But he's really progressed in the last two weeks and he's getting more comfortable. He's on the Ultra G treadmill, doing squats and getting weight on the ankle.
"It's really nice to see because there were some terrible times for him down in our old gym.
"Things weren't progressing at all and it was looking bleak. Hopefully, in the near future, we can see him back in Ulster colours," Wallace added.
As for 34-year-old Wallace, it has also been a long road back but at least he has already got back on the pitch and has played twice for the Ulster Ravens ahead of tonight's return to senior action.
Indeed, he showed that he still has an eye to create something out of nothing with last week's Ravens game at Deramore seeing him supply one of his trademark off-loads put Ricky Andrew into space for the bonus point try.
It was an important moment for Wallace, now in his 12th year as a professional.
Though the game was hardly the most memorable – he actually ended up being yellow carded just before the hour – it was a significant staging post in his recovery from a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament he suffered at the end of last February playing against Glasgow Warriors.
"That second game (he had played for the first time since his injury the week before for the Ravens in their unexpected defeat at Ayr) was a much better performance for the team and allowed me to test the injury out a lot more as well," he says.
"It's been a long time (out) and the Ravens games were good, but being out here playing for Ulster again is the next step and the next test for the injury.
"Nothing's really compared to it (the knee injury)," says a player with more than ample experience of shipping punishment.
"I had a leg break in 2003 that was maybe three months out but this has been a lot longer. It's a big bombshell when it hits, but when that settles and you know how long the road is going to be you just plan it out a bit.
"Hopefully I can now prove I'm still capable of playing at this level," the longest serving and most capped Ulster player says ahead of making his 189th appearance when he takes the field at centre against Zebre tonight.
He has just come back from a training session at nearby Pirrie Park and it is noticeable that the knee is encased in a heavy duty support which leads to an explanation that he clearly still has to carefully manage the situation.
"I just cover it up and ice it," Wallace says before adding, "We've just done a session so I just keep it iced to keep the swelling down and just to keep on top of it."
And just in case you begin to wonder if all really is well, he points out that training has been going well.
"All this GPS and data that you get every training session has shown that the knee and the speed is at as good a level as it was before the injury," the 30-times capped Ireland player makes sure he mentions.
"It's reassuring from a training point of view, it's now about replicating that in matches and getting that touch back which only comes from playing again.
"This is another step up and I've never been as excited about going into a Rabo (PRO12) week because it's been such a long time and there's a lot riding on it for me."
He turns 35 in August and though his contract is due to expire at the end of this season, there is no hint that these could be his last few months as a professional, even with the strength in depth Ulster now have at centre with Luke Marshall, Darren Cave, Jared Payne and injured duo Stuart Olding and Chris Farrell all on the books.
"I'm certainly not going to be here forever," is as much as he will say as he passes comment on just how strong Ulster have become in his favoured position. "So it's great to see the guys are providing such depth in the squad."
For now, though, the sole aim is to get back on that pitch and hit something very close to the same level he was at when he departed in Glasgow last February.
"It's just nice to get back playing and this was always the aim with the two Ravens games leading into this Christmas period after Europe, to get myself ready for that and allow the squad to rotate a bit."
Now he gets his chance to put it all to the ultimate test.