While his colleagues prepared yesterday for what is Ulster’s biggest European Cup fixture since they won the trophy 11 years ago, Stephen Ferris was a notable absentee.
Not his fault, I hasten to add.
The Irish and Lions blindside was stuck in Belfast all day after Heathrow Airport was closed because of snow leaving both Ferris and Ulster manager David Millar to kick their heels in frustration at missing the appeal of Stade’s replacement, David Attoub, who was charged with having gouged him during the December 12 Heineken Cup match at Ravenhill
In the end the ERC agreed to take evidence from Ferris over the phone late yesterday afternoon.
Attoub’s Stade colleague and fellow-French international, scrum-half Julien Dupuy, faced a similar charge and when he appeared before the original pre-Christmas hearing he received a 24-week ban. But the hearing against Attoub, scheduled for the same day, was adjourned when the French international questioned the authenticity of press photographs of the alleged assault on Ferris, his claim being that they had been doctored.
Given those circumstances, the hearing was adjourned in order to permit further investigation of the evidence, with a variety of independent examinations of the photographs being conducted.
When, finally, that was done, the ERC decided that Wednesday, January 23, should be the date for the reconvened hearing.
That they did so beggars belief, for it has done Ulster — the victims, not the perpetrators remember — no favours at all.
With Brian McLaughlin’s side’s schedule for any week which ends with a Friday night fixture being a final, all-out session on Wednesday, followed by a much slower-paced day on the eve of the match, the absence of Ferris — a key player — cannot but have been detrimental to the preparations for what is the biggest game this team ever will have faced.
That it happens to be in the same competition as the one in which the attempted gouging of Ferris’s eyes occurred and over which the ERC presides merely adds to the parody.
The handling of the entire issue has been grossly unsatisfactory, with Ulster now appearing to have been punished, albeit unintentionally, by the European Cup organisers for a crime committed against them.
The importance of this weekend’s game against Edinburgh was underlined when coach McLaughlin — a cautious man who weighs his words carefully and cannot ever be accused of overstating any case — used the adjective “massive” to describe it.
In view of that, the last thing he and his team needed — or deserved — was an ERC-imposed handicap, particularly with it having come following the earlier disruption to Ulster’s planning caused by last weekend’s weather-enforced lay-off.
McLaughlin is not a man given to spending time complaining. His philosophy in life is to see to those things he can change and to move on quickly from those beyond his ability to control or improve. The call for Ferris to attend yesterday’s hearing was one he was unable to change.
That being the case he has been getting on with things ahead of the bid to lead his team to heights unscaled since Harry Williams guided Ulster to the pinnacle of European club rugby 11 years ago.
Looking ahead to Friday night he said: “It’s going to be an exceptionally tough game. There’s a lot at stake.
“From our point of view it’s great that we’re still in Europe, albeit that if Stade win their last two games we won’t be able to catch them. But I don’t want to be negative in any way, shape or form. Stade have Bath this weekend in Paris and then they have to go to Edinburgh.
“Those are two tough games. We certainly know how tough Edinburgh are, especially at home, so anything can happen.”