It’s going to be another frustrating weekend for Stephen Ferris.
Tonight at Ravenhill Ulster host Newport Gwent Dragons in a rearranged Magners League match knowing that a win will take them into the top four and, with five games remaining, on target for a place in the mid-May semi-finals.
Tomorrow at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium Ireland will face England in the hope of driving the guests’ sweet chariot into the ditch by sabotaging their Grand Slam bid, just as they did in 2001.
In both cases Ferris — who by his own admission “isn’t a very good spectator” — will only be able to look on in the hope that his club and international colleagues succeed in their respective objectives.
Having been sidelined since picking up yet another knee injury in Ulster’s six-try demolition of Aironi in the Heineken Cup, his despair at not being able to influence events on the pitch is obvious.
His unavailability this weekend means Ferris will have missed Ireland’s entire 2011 RBS Six Nations campaign. But finally, after a month and a half in dry dock, there is hope on the horizon, as the Lions flanker explained.
“I’ve just been back running since Monday. It’s kind of up and down at the minute — feeling good one day and maybe a bit sore the next, but I hadn’t run for six weeks so obviously it was going to be a bit sore starting off,” he said.
“I’m up at Jordanstown doing all of that and hopefully this coming week I’ll be able to get back in with Ulster and get some pitch sessions done.
“The target has always been to get back for the Northampton game (Heineken Cup quarter-final, April 10) but if I could maybe squeeze in some game time the week before that would be good.”
Typically he adds: “Even if I didn’t have any game time and I was selected I’d go straight in there and back myself. The chance of some game time would be brilliant, though.”
When he switches his focus to Ireland’s prospects against England, what stands out most is Ferris’s loyalty to his team mates.
“We’ve had a bit of criticism from everybody but the effort and enthusiasm has been there in abundance so that’s tough to take.”
His view of Mike Phillips’ score for Wales last Saturday evening in Cardiff is: “I believe we were robbed. Something like that can be the difference between winning and losing and if we’d won that game we’d be going for the Triple Crown this weekend.
“The margins between winning and losing are very slim, but that’s Test match rugby for you.”
That said, he acknowledges that Ireland’s recent record has not been good.
“We’ve only won four of the last 11 games and the target we set ourselves is to win the World Cup, simple as that. We won the Grand Slam in 2009 — and beat some of the best sides in the world that year — so our attitude was ‘Why not win the World Cup?’
“If we are to do that we have to go on an unbeaten streak now. That’s going to be tough, but we definitely have the players there to do it,” Ferris ventures.
Beating England tomorrow would be a very good starting point on the climb back up a hill which at this stage looks dauntingly steep. But tellingly, Ferris is wholly confident that Ireland will do so.
He refutes any suggestion that Ireland have gone over that hill, with too many players passing beyond their prime simultaneously.
“No, no — definitely not,” is his reply. “If you look at the squad there are so many guys who were out with long-term injuries and are now coming back. They haven’t had a lot of rugby.
“Jonny Sexton was out with a broken hand, Paul O’Connell was out for a long, long time, you’re missing Rob Kearney and Geordan Murphy, Luke Fitzgerald was out for a long time, too, Tommy (Bowe) has been out and a lot of guys have been carrying knocks.”
Whilst loathe to single out individuals he highlighted an Ulster team mate by saying: “I think Rory (Best) has had a very good series. Before the start there was a lot of talk about our line-out but his throwing has been dead on and his work around the field has been great.”
Be that as it may, Ireland have a job to do tomorrow. Ferris fancies his mates to do it successfully.
“If you look at the Ireland side of 2009 and the England side of 2011 you’d back Ireland 99 times out of 100 to win.
“If you look at England in their last four games I don’t think they’ve been that impressive. They had that one big win against Italy — who didn’t turn up on the day at Twickenham — and they started to think they’re world-beaters after that.
“But last week, on England’s patch, Scotland ran them very close and showed that if you get stuck into them they’re vulnerable. I definitely think Ireland will win this weekend.”