Ulster Rugby ace Stephen Ferris could have been one of the world's best
Injury robbed Ulster, Ireland and Lions of a player who would have reached very top
Stephen Ferris is a player about whom we will continue to wonder just how good he might have been.
My belief is that he was a truly great player who had the ability to have become even better. Alas, injuries conspired to rob him – and us – of the finished article, for which reason we can only imagine just how good he might have become.
As it is, we know that in his prime he was genuinely world class. But for a training ground injury while on tour with the 2009 British and Irish Lions I have no doubt that he would have been a Test match starter at six against the Springboks.
Sadly, too, injury meant he played no part at all in last season's conquest of Australia by the Lions.
He deserved to play on such stages and it is a shame that fate denied him the opportunity, for it was exactly the sort of environment in which he could have shown southern hemisphere audiences what those of us north of the equator already knew, namely that he could be as good as any blind-side on the planet.
As it was, they received evidence of the fact in the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand where his performance for Ireland against Australia was truly memorable. I doubt Will Genia will ever forget being picked up and carried by the awesomely rampaging Ferris in Ireland's pool-stage triumph at Eden Park.
It prompted that most eloquent of commentators, Eddie Butler, to write: "One tackle by Ferris, from a scrum driven backwards by Ireland on the Australian put-in, made a statement.
"Australia scrummaged well in the Tri-Nations, allowing Will Genia to be the central character in the champions' show. Here, Ferris picked him up and bulldozed him into a nightmare, leaving the play-maker upended and helpless at the bottom of a ruck."
In the warm afterglow of Ireland's 15-6 victory that memorable Saturday morning, Ulster, Ireland and Lions great, Trevor Ringland, spoke for the whole island when he told Belfast Telegraph readers: "Stephen is a phenomenal player."
There was, perhaps, an element of inevitability about Ferris' injury-enforced retirement. He has always played rugby full-on, repeatedly powering into contact – whether in defensive or attacking mode – with scant regard for the personal cost of so doing.
As a result, he has suffered numerous injuries, many of them major. Over and again we wondered how long he could continue to do so until finally, yesterday, we got our answer. This time, time is up.
In November 2012, I wrote an article in which former Ireland strength and conditioning coach Mike McGurn expressed his fears that Ferris was on borrowed time.
McGurn was quoted as saying: "He is 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."
Alas, he has been proved right. Since McGurn spoke those words just over 18 months ago, Ferris managed bit-part appearances against Scarlets, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Saracens – a total well short of two hours.
At the time the powerhouse flanker was deeply upset and made that known on Twitter.
His Tweet read: "People can write and say what they want about me in newspapers. It's the people I trust and care for who's opinion matters. #fish+chips paper."
I was dismayed that something I had written without malice had so clearly upset him. I know that was never McGurn's intention; it certainly wasn't mine.
The big fella duly told the Irish Independent: "People can say and write what they like, but they don't know me. They may have had experiences of working with me, but...
"Reading that article, it didn't make me angry, but that is somebody that I've worked with and I think he should have kept his opinions to himself. That's my opinion and I know a lot of other people who share that opinion.
"I'm the strongest I've ever been in the gym and personally I feel absolutely fantastic, so I just can't wait to get back out there and when I do get back out there, I think I'll be better than I was when I left off."
And he refuted any suggestion that his injuries were by-products of his particularly aggressive style of play.
"Definitely not, no," he said.
Explaining the circumstances of the injury which has now finished his career, he pointed out: "I jumped up in the air to catch a ball (against Edinburgh on November 2, 2012) and went over on my ankle.
"With my knee, I was out for six months after we got a push-over try (against Aironi on January 22, 2011) and I was looking the other way, with my knee slightly flexed, and their tight-head prop fell into my knee.
"Two innocuous injuries are going to keep me out for 10 months between them.
"So, I have been unlucky. I dived on a ball and somebody (Wales' Martyn Williams) kicked my finger and fractured it (March 21, 2009), I fractured my cheekbone in training when Nevin Spence, God bless him, ran into me and I was caught the wrong way."
He added: "That's not running too hard or being too aggressive. These things happen."
Sadly, they do. And because that is the case, no more will we see the barnstorming big blind-side leading the charge in white or green, and striking fear into opponents.
But it was great while it lasted.
Thanks for the memory, Fez.
Full name: Stephen Ferris
Date of birth: August 2, 1985
Educated: Friends' School Lisburn
Now living: Maghaberry
Height: 6ft 4in
Weight: 17st 6lb
Position: Back-row (blindside flanker)
Major teams: Ulster, Ireland, British and Irish Lions
Appearances: Ulster 106 (12 tries), Ireland 35 (2 tries), Lions (2 non-Test appearances, 2009, South Africa)
Further readingStephen Ferris retires: Ulster, Ireland and British and Irish Lions player to quit rugby