Ulster Rugby's Stephen Ferris: I leave with no regrets
Yesterday's announcement that Stephen Ferris' playing days are over merely confirmed what most Ulster and Ireland supporters had feared for some time.
This was a case where the oft-quoted convention that 'no news is good news' did not apply.
The news everyone had wanted to hear was that the outstanding blindside flanker had been offered a new contract.
The fact that no such deal was forthcoming was ominous and the longer that continued to be the case, the more one sensed it was not going to happen.
Finally, what had looked inevitable finally became reality. At 12.45pm yesterday Ulster Rugby issued a notice which opened with the words: "Ulster, Ireland and British and Irish Lions back-row forward, Stephen Ferris, has today confirmed that he is to retire from rugby."
A short time later, the 28-year-old bared his soul to the media, re-living the highs – and lows – of an injury-ravaged career and talking about his hopes for the future.
He stressed the importance of knowing that he had given it his best shot, for which reason he could retire happy that he left no stone unturned in his bid to play again following the ankle injury which ultimately was to prove one too many.
Revealing the cost of the battle he has fought and now lost, Ferris said: "I've had three surgeries on my right ankle. The whole thing is scarred up. I've very limited range in it, I've got feet problems now and I have nerve damage in my toes, so I've a lot of issues.
"Hopefully a couple of months rest and doing absolutely nothing on it means it will settle down. It's a bit of a crossword (puzzle) there with the amount of scars on it but I've got to live with it."
And pointing to the pluses, he said: "At the same time, I've played rugby for the past eight or nine years for Ulster, Ireland, and I've enjoyed every minute of it. I wouldn't change anything. I've got no regrets. I just look forward to the future now and supporting the boys from the stands."
After suffering his career-ending ankle injury, Ferris gave his all in an attempt to return to the game he loves.
"I trained so hard," he said. "It's the hardest I'd ever trained. Everybody thinks rugby is tough; try being injured – it's 10 times harder, you do 10 times more training.
"To be able to go out and play on a Friday night, train all the next week and then go out and play again is the best thing ever, it really is.
"Being out injured and having to do gym session after gym session after fitness session after fitness session is the worst thing ever."
Recalling how it had felt when, after 16 months on the sidelines, he finally made his eagerly-awaited return in such dramatic fashion against Scarlets at Ravenhill, he said: "To go out there and for Ruan (Pienaar) to put up a lovely kick and for me to hit the guy (Aled Thomas) just got me into the game straight away.
"Any doubts that I'd had over the previous six weeks about me potentially coming back into a game went out the window. I was thinking, 'Right, I'm back into this. I feel good, I feel good'. I felt fast, I felt agile.
"But then the next week (against Edinburgh at Murrayfield) I didn't feel so good. And then the following week (against Cardiff Blues at the Arms Park) I was (just) okay.
"When you come into such big games as Saracens and you're maybe only getting one training session... you're having to run through all the line-outs.
"For me to be on the bench those few games and having to know three different positions and having to run 60 line-outs on Thursday and coming down every time on the 3G pitch in Cardiff, it just wasn't great.
"It just kind of snowballed a bit. I tried to get back doing a bit of running with Jonny Davis (Ulster strength and conditioning coach) but that was the last time I ran."
There was clear emotion in his voice as he retraced his steps since undertaking his comeback attempt. He was always conscious of the unrealistic expectation on the part of some supporters that he was going to return refreshed, reinvented and raring to go.
"A lot of fans were thinking, 'Stevie's going to come back and he's just going to pick up where he left off'. That wasn't the case and that's why I played a few games to try and get myself a bit of momentum.
"But my ankle was sore. It's always been sore over the past 18 months," he revealed.
"It was (about) how long I could dig in for, really."
Explaining how the decision to quit had been reached, he said: "I saw the surgeon – Andy Adair, who used to play for Ulster back in the day – and he told me, 'Stevie, your ankle isn't going to get any better'. That's the way it is. That was about three weeks ago in the Ulster Independent Clinic."
Asked when he knew his career was over, he replied: "Probably the minute after the surgeon said, 'Look Stevie, I think the best thing for you is to hang up the boots and not play professional rugby'.
"Of course I'd talked a week, 10 days earlier with the Ulster medical staff (about the fact) that my ankle was in a bad way, but you don't want to believe it. So when did I realise it was over? When I was told the best advice was to hang up the boots.
"Over the last 18 months I've always had it in the back of my mind that I might have to retire – I MIGHT have to retire. But I always believed I would get back playing and thankfully I did.
"But it didn't really sink in until I was told that the best thing for me was to hang the boots up. That's not that long ago. It has all happened pretty quickly – and it definitely hasn't sunk in yet."
Six of the best
That infamous Genia lift
Australia 6 Ireland 15, World Cup, Eden Park, September 17, 2011: The never to be forgotten moment when Ferris grabbed Wallaby scrum-half Will Genia and picked him up and carried him several yards, propelling the Aussie backwards and into a heap. It was a seismic example of Ferris's raw power and it single-handedly gave Ireland the belief that they could win the game and go on to top their pool. Ferris's lift became a YouTube sensation.
Getting in Munster’s way
Munster 16 Ulster 22, Heineken Cup, Thomond Park, April 8, 2012: He wasn't fit coming into the game thanks to an ankle problem, but Ferris produced one of his most belligerent performances to deny Munster what had been anticipated as a home win. Sheer willpower along with high levels of anticipation and nous, ensured that Ferris was notably destructive and his display helped catapult Ulster into the semi-final.
Roaring as a proud Lion
Golden Lions 10 British and Irish Lions 74, Coca-Cola Park, June 3, 2009: His Lions tour was cruelly cut short by injury but he amply demonstrated his credentials as a Test starter with some stunning performances in the red shirt. On as a substitute, and with the game already won with the clock in the red zone, he picked up a loose ball and showed marvellous pace to race clear of the home side's cover to run in for a score under the posts from over 50 metres out.
Showcasing his skill set
Italy 9 Ireland 38, Six Nations, Stadio Flaminio, February 15, 2009: Another aspect to Ferris's skills base was on show as Ireland won the second leg of what was their Grand Slam season. It was never just about power when it came to Ferris. He showed some subtle off-loading skills by taking the ball into contact before deftly supplying Luke Fitzgerald with a scoring pass which could have been delivered by Brian O'Driscoll. A wonderful piece of play.
Standing tall in adversity
Ulster 23 Stade Francais 13, Heineken Cup, Ravenhill, December 12, 2009: Ferris was central to snuffing out everything the French could throw while leading the charge. Towards the end, the visitors had enough of him and he was targeted in a cynical eye gouge. Julien Dupuy and David Attoub were banned. Ferris made it known that he had been the victim of an unacceptable act against a player Stade couldn't cope with. He stood tall that day.
His last rampaging return
Ulster 26 Scarlets 13, PRO12, Ravenhill, March 14, 2014: His comeback after a 16-month absence, brought on to choruses of 'there's only one Stevie Ferris’. And what an impact he made with Ruan Pienaar's up and under taken by Kristian Phillips, who also acquired a rampaging Ferris. The Scarlets defender was driven back in trademark Ferris fashion. The loudest roar of the night but little did we know this was close to the end.