Ulster v Saracens referee not to blame for crucial Jared Payne red card decision
Ulster star Stephen Ferris did not agree with Jerome Garces decision to send off Jared Payne in Saturday's Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat to Saracens but refused to blame the official for the heartbreaking 17-15 reverse.
On the fourth minute incident that saw Payne collide with his opposing full-back Alex Goode, the Ireland international said: "Like everyone in the stadium, I think a penalty yes but it could have went either way. Both players thought they were going for the ball and for me a red was very harsh.
"As soon as it happened I thought Jared was going to be worse off, the way he ran into his legs, but then saw Goode having to come off on a stretcher.
"It looked bad and then Jared bounced back up to his feet straight away saying he was looking at the ball. There was so much hype all week, and obviously the expectation that comes with that, but the guys were really ready for it and then that happens after four minutes."
Rather than lambast the French whistler, however, the 2009 British and Irish Lion magnanimously added: "It's not the referee's fault, it's not Jared's fault, it's just a decision that swung the game in their favour.
"When it swings in their favour for 76 minutes it's always going to be tough to get back."
Payne, a typically relaxed and affable Kiwi by nature, cut a disconsolate figure as he sat watching the remainder of the game from the sidelines and Ferris sympathised with his frustrated teammate.
"He's a quality player and has been all year for us but nobody is going to blame him," said the 28-year-old.
"He's certainly not a dirty player. He's never had a red card and I don't think he's even ever had a yellow card for Ulster.
"For him to get sent off was a big blow but we dug in. The guys were eight points down and against the wind at one stage.
"To come back from that with only 14 men I think is an achievement in itself."
Attending a sponsor's event in the immediate aftermath of the contest, the robust openside –who was penalised to end the game after Ulster had put together a gargantuan 32 phases – was proud of the contribution made by his side to what was a wholly absorbing battle.
"To play with 14 men for 76 minutes shows how good a side we are and how good the players we have here are," said Ferris (pictured)
"The heart was there, the effort was there and the accuracy was definitely there.
"We could have maybe went in at half-time with 12 points and if we had have had a full-back then Ashton wouldn't have scored off that kick pass or scored in the corner, but that's the way it goes.
"Fair play to Sarries though, they came here and won when not a lot of teams do. They are a great outfit and they're not top of the Premiership for no reason.
"With the wind behind them they were able to kick the leather off the ball and we just didn't have enough of it to get back in the game."
Having just returned from 16 months on the sidelines in March's PRO12 game with Scarlets, Ferris had only 100 minutes of competitive rugby under his belt this season before the high-intensity encounter but was as keen as ever to jump straight into the fray when called upon to replace Nick Williams after 54 minutes.
"The crowd and atmosphere were great and these are the games you want to be out there for," said the 35-times capped flanker.
"It was still in the balance when I came on, Jacko (Paddy Jackson) had a kick that came off the post and then I was into it.
"It was a lot of kick tennis and we just needed them to make a mistake but they never did. That's what it came down to and you have to credit them for that."
While the post mortem of another European campaign is continued by fans and the media alike, Ferris' attention has already returned to the PRO12 as Ulster seek to earn their first piece of silverware since 2006.
He concluded: "We have to dust ourselves off and try to get a good performance in against Connacht on Friday because there is another trophy for us to win.
"We had a slip up last week and we can't afford any more now so we need to have that in our heads going in."
Stephen Ferris was speaking at the latest Heineken Get In The Game Event at The Fly bar in Belfast