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How injuries put brakes on Stephen Ferris' big move to Japan in 2013

 

Stephen Ferris
Stephen Ferris
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Strolling around the famous yatai restaurants, enthusing over the local ramen and, in the case of Garry Ringrose, even risking a haircut, Ireland's World Cup squad seem taken by the city of Fukuoka.

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Their base for the past nine days ahead of taking on Samoa this morning, it was once almost a more permanent home to one former Ulster hero.

The Hakatanomori Stadium that will play host to today's Pool A clash is the regular ground of Japan's Coca-Cola Red Sparks, the club side who in 2013 thought they had pulled off a sensational coup with the signing of Stephen Ferris.

The 2009 British and Irish Lion would ultimately see the move scuppered by injury.

Having struggled with his ankle in the final year of his central deal and missed the previous Six Nations, a lowball offer with more incentives than guaranteed money had him and his agent Ryan Constable looking elsewhere. The Red Sparks saw greater value, offering him £140,000 for an eight-month deal which in an ideal world would have been parlayed into a contract with Top 14 giants Clermont, then coached by Vern Cotter.

An admitted "homebird" by nature, the Ravenhill favourite was ready for him and his now wife Laura to move halfway across the world.

"For me, I don't like to be told what to do," says the man who has been acting as a pundit for RTE throughout the World Cup.

"If somebody backs me into a corner, I'll do everything to fight my way out of it. Even though I was injured a lot, I always had that belief that I was going to get back fit but the IRFU were still playing hardball with the contract. That's the organisation, it's a business and it's cut-throat.

"When I was backed into that corner, I was going to look at other options and the opportunity came up. Everyone's the same, if something like that comes up, it's hard to turn down, sometimes you just have to go with it. I looked at somebody like James Haskell who had played in New Zealand and Japan and I just thought 'life is too short and rugby is about experiences and seeing different parts of the world.'

"I wanted to break the mould of players staying within Ireland, within the system. Anybody who knows me would probably say I'm very much a homebird. I would get a nosebleed on a plane to England, but I wanted to experience something different. It would have been cool to be able to fulfill that contract at that stage of my career. It's a pity it couldn't happen but there's nothing you can do about injuries."

By then, Ferris had already been to two World Cups, gaining contrasting experiences from each. His lifting of Australia scrum-half Will Genia remains the signature moment of Ireland's great win over the Wallabies in 2011, the subsequent quarter-final upset at the hands of Wales one of the few regrets he still harbours.

Eight years on, the long wait for a first semi-final berth continues. Barring disaster today against Samoa, there'll be a chance to end the drought next weekend against either the All Blacks or South Africa. As Ferris notes, it's somewhat of a pick your poison scenario.

"It's a real shame the way the draw has gone," he says. "Ireland came into the tournament ranked number one but realistically if you get battered by England, you're not really world number one because you've two scrappy wins over Wales, are you? South Africa, New Zealand and England they're the top three so the heart says one thing and the head another.

"It'd have to be a bit of a reverse 2011, we'd need a little bit of luck and South Africa or New Zealand to have an off day.

"If both sides play their best, then Ireland would be going home.

"I'd love to see them do it though, see Rory Best making a bit of history in his last games."

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