Ulster to Stephen Ferris: Prove to us you still have what it takes
ferris given a chance to resurrect his career
After months of speculation as to where he might be playing his rugby next season, finally Stephen Ferris broke his long-held silence on the subject when he committed himself to a further stint with Ulster.
His acceptance of the six-months contract extension offered by his employers, the Irish Rugby Football Union – a package he and his management team, Cornerflag, had rejected initially – amounts to staking everything on his hope that the doctors who have treated him in Belfast, Dublin and London are right in saying that he will be able to resurrect his injury-threatened career next season.
Once more, however, he has been forced to accept a setback on the long road to recovery. In an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph in early May, his response when asked when he hoped to be fit to resume was: "Next season, the start of next season."
Now, however, that has been revised yet again, with his IRFU paymasters, Ulster and Ferris himself resigned to the fact that he is likely to miss the first four months of the 2013-14 campaign. That is the third such setback with this particular ankle injury, sustained on November 2 whilst on duty for Ulster duty against Edinburgh, paradoxically in a match which was to have proven his fitness to play for Ireland in last autumn's Guinness Series.
He has not played since.
Having undergone surgery three weeks before Christmas, Ferris was hopeful of being able to take part in the latter stages of the RBS Six Nations.
A second operation in February, when bone fragments were removed, put paid to that, alas.
Last month he had further surgery as a result of which his hopes of a return to action in August have been scuppered. Now the target is four months into the new season – hopefully in time for some of Ireland's programme against Samoa, Australia and New Zealand in November, a full 12 months later than originally scheduled.
The challenge the flanker has accepted is to persuade the IRFU that he merits further investment on their part. He has from now until the end of the year to do so.
While that is a high pressure situation, nevertheless it is the best possible outcome for Ferris who is an Ulsterman through and through. Certainly, from a rugby-playing perspective, it is better than that now-cancelled, much-mooted move to Japan. Just a couple of months ago, that appeared inevitable. Even Ulster coach Mark Anscombe was resigned to losing a world-class flanker.
When, in early April, he was asked if Ferris might be on his way at the end of the season, Anscombe replied: "Yeah, most probably at this stage. He is a great loss. I don't know if it is signed or sealed at this stage, that's for Stephen and his support team to make those decision."
It was neither signed nor sealed, however, and a few weeks later Ferris made it clear that he would prefer to stay. In an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph at the start of May, he said: "I love Ulster. I love Ulster Rugby. Ulster is my home. It's the place I love."
Yesterday Ulster's Director of Rugby David Humphreys spelt out his hopes in the wake of this latest development, saying: "Stephen has had a difficult year with the injuries that he has suffered, but when he is fit there is no doubt that he is one of the best back-row forwards in the game.
"Stephen is passionate about playing for Ulster and Ireland and our aim in giving him this contract extension is to provide him with the best possible care to enable him to get back playing."
Ferris's reaction appeared to be one of gratitude and relief that he has been given a chance. He said: "I am delighted that I can continue my recovery and rehab from injury within the Ulster Rugby set-up.
"I believe that working with the medical team at Ulster, along with the excellent strength and conditioning coaches, offers me the best chance of regaining full fitness and of representing Ulster and Ireland again."
The road back from injury has been slow, painful and frustrating and it speaks volumes for his mental strength that Ferris, who will be 28 on August 2, has refused to quit. A lesser man would have done so long ago in view of the setbacks he has endured and the disappointments he has had to overcome.
Rugby followers everywhere will wish him well in his bid to return to top-class rugby. And, closer to home, every Ulster supporter's fingers are crossed that Ferris will be back next season to line out in white alongside his fellow-Lions Tommy Bowe, Rory Best and Tom Court.