Rugby World Cup: Ferris shapes up for epic battle
When you get to this stage of a World Cup, it is customary for superlatives to fly about like tongues at a haka but there was an unexpected plaudit lobbed in Ireland's direction at yesterday's team announcement.
Brian O'Driscoll was asked to comment on an Irish back-row that the Kiwi questioner reckoned was being touted in many circles as the “best in the world”.
“It's always nice getting plaudits from people outside,” replied the Ireland captain.
“But, at the same time I don't think it'll affect their mindset. I don't think they'll be letting all the chat about them affect their performances in any way.
“There may have been people who've been a bit surprised by them, but we know they've had that in their armoury for a while and it's been building.”
The reason for the use of words like “unexpected” and “surprised” in relation to the praise flowing towards this Irish trio is nothing to do with the way they have been playing together but rather to do with the amount they have played together.
It was mentioned several times yesterday that Stephen Ferris, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip have only lined out twice as a unit — when they started against Australia and Italy in the last few weeks — although they did have 40 minutes as a trio when O'Brien made his international debut off the bench against Fiji two years ago.
Nonetheless, it is still precious little time to attract the ‘best in the world' tag and the unlikely aspect to this trio's remarkable success is accentuated by the unforeseen manner of their coming together and subsequent role distribution.
Ferris was not expected to feature at this World Cup. He was making all the right rehabilitation noises last spring but, given the extent of his knee trouble and consistent battle with injury, there were few who had utmost faith in Ferris's capacity to be fit and firing come September.
The Ulster man's return to his wrecking-ball best has been something of a bonus and one that has been received with extra appreciation following David Wallace being ruled out of the tournament through injury.
Wallace was the designated open-side and, in his absence, O'Brien was forced to don the No 7 jersey that, it was widely held, did not make the most of his barnstorming abilities.
The knowledge that O'Brien was not an open-side in the traditional sense, and the need to maximise his ball-carrying impact then saw the transformation of Jamie Heaslip from front of house figurehead to nose-in-the-dirt scrapper and close-in workhorse with considerable success.
The back-row duties in defence, at the breakdown and on the carry have been distributed successfully between the three players while Heaslip has also become a go-to option at the back of the line-out.
“I think it's great,” says Ferris of the Irish back-row's evolution.
“We're being recognised as playing well together. Me, Sean and Jamie have only started two Tests together and we seem to be clicking very well. We're just looking forward to going out and playing well again.”
A close bond and good communication is essential to any successful back-row and, while Ferris and Heaslip go back a few years and O'Brien knows Heaslip (pictured together) well from Leinster, a strong bond has formed between Lisburn and Tullow on this expedition.
“Before the match the back-row have a chat about what we want out of the game, sharing our workload and feeding off each other,” says Ferris.
“I've been rooming with Sean O'Brien for more or less the majority of the trip so far and he's somebody I probably didn't spend as much time with before coming out here but we seem to have got on really, really well.”
“At Leinster, Jamie probably carries a bit more ball off five-man line-outs, but he's been one of our main line-out options on this tour so far and he's been doing a sterling job.”
All very positive ahead of Saturday's showdown but if there has been any back-row that has matched Ireland's at this tournament, it has been the Welsh, using Dan Lydiate, Ryan Jones, Toby Faletau and Sam Warburton.
The last two in particular have been earning rave reviews with Warburton emerging as an inspired choice as captain. O'Driscoll singled out Warburton yesterday for mention as a player who has caught his eye at this tournament — and Ferris has been just as impressed.
“It's going to be a massive contest against a really good Welsh back-row. I didn't really know much about Faletau, playing for the Dragons and that, but he had a tremendous game against South Africa,” said Ferris.
“But, we've got a back-row ourselves and hopefully we'll have a good day.”
Whether or not either unit can lay claim to the title of ‘best in the world' yet is debatable and both have a ways to go before being regarded in the same light as some of the classic Welsh and Irish units.
However, as Ryan Jones pointed out earlier in the week, this back-row battle on Saturday is shaping up to be “one hell of a contest”.