Steven Ferris interview: Ravenhill to red jersey

Stephen Ferris has had quite a year. A Ravenhill favourite at only 23, he’s a Grand Slam champion and a Lion in the making. Ryan Jennings asked him what he thought of it all.

The young Stephen Ferris didn’t have it easy at all. Living out of town, in Maghaberry – as he still does – he had to spend a lot of time travelling. The only difference now, he says, is that he has a car.

You could argue there are a few more. When he was 16 he left Friends School and attended Lisburn Tech for a year before leaving to pave driveways after his mum asked him if he wouldn’t mind paying his way.

At the time he was playing for Portadown under-18s. Allen Clarke, now Ireland under-20s coach, was coach of Ulster Youth and it was his former Friends coach Barney McGonigle, also involved in the Ulster set-up, who did him a favour: “Barney got on to Clarky saying there was a really good player leaving our school, he might be worth bringing up to Ulster Youth.”

From then he kicked on to Ireland under-19s which, as luck would have it, Allen Clarke was coaching. It was hard work though.

“I was travelling up to the academy every morning on the train from Moira, getting up at six in the morning, to be in Jordanstown for half eight. I did that for about six months until I passed my test. It was hard work and you’re not professional so you’re not getting paid.”

In the 2005-2006 season he was offered a development contract at Ulster and as he says, taking a sigh, “the rest is history.”

Fast forward three years and the not-so young Stephen Ferris has won 13 caps for Ireland and 62 for Ulster. He was part of a Grand Slam-winning Ireland team in March and became Ulster’s first selected British and Irish Lion since Jeremy Davidson was chosen to also tour South Africa in 1997.

“I had a chat with Jeremy at the IRUPA [Irish Rugby Union Players Association] awards and he just told me to enjoy it as it’s over very quickly. You’re preparing for games, then you’re resting,” he says. “There were five games in the Six Nations and that was pretty tough on the body and mentally. You need to be clued in; a couple of slip-ups and you could find yourself sitting on the bench for a few games.

“I need to give myself a chance and hopefully I’ll get to wear the red jersey a couple of times when I’m out there.”

To the casual back pages reader it could seem that the Lions’ opponents, South Africa, are unbeatable. They are world champions and their strength in depth is the envy of all other nations but the flanker is undaunted: “I don’t think there’s too much [the Lions] can’t do. People have been there before and the way some of the Leinster players are playing at the moment and the Munster pack – the Irish guys – I know what to expect from them and hopefully other countries can bring the same kind of thing.

“There are a lot of guys in the squad that I’ve never come across and I hope I’ll make a few mates out of it.”

The Boks are seen as a team right up Ferris’ alley. They’re big, physical and enjoy the collisions, but so does he.

“Coming through the underage levels and being strong in the gym and knowing you’re in the top tier of strength and conditioning, you know you can compete with anyone else and it’s a load off your mind. I’m looking forward to challenging myself against supposedly the best team in the world,” he explains.

However, he hadn’t seen this sort of success coming at the start of the season: “At the start of the season I was getting back from injury and I missed the first two games of the season. Ulster didn’t get off to a great start so I was trying to get back playing for Ulster and trying to play some good rugby, which led onto the autumn series and from there into the Six Nations.”

He started the first international of the season at blindside against Canada in Thomond Park but Ireland coach Declan Kidney went with Munster’s Alan Quinlan for the game against the All Blacks, which Ireland lost. He was re-instated for the game a week later against Argentina, a match Ireland had to win to ensure a second seed position for the Rugby World Cup in 2011.

While Ferris’ recent rise has been unique, it’s easy to forget he made his international debut in 2006, in the last game at the old Lansdowne Road – after which he thought he “was going to die” – before travelling to the 2007 World Cup in France. Despite the disappointing results, he says he learned a lot and “in rugby, as well as highs there’s major lows and it’s how you deal with it.”

Lifting the lid on that time, he thinks that then Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan had his team in his mind before he left. “He thought they were going to come good but they didn’t and sitting on the sideline, unless someone gets injured, you know you don’t really have a chance,” he says, “but with Declan [Kidney] you’re always on your toes. He’s a good man manager and gives lot of confidence.”

In 2008 Ireland had their worst finish in the Six Nations but by 2009 they were Grand Slam champions – quite the turnaround. He explains that at Christmas the team “got a few things out on the table that had been brewing for a while.

“Even in the autumn not everybody was entirely happy with what we were trying to achieve and our game plan as such but everybody came together and threw opinions out on the table and agreed on something, and the results speak for themselves.”

On the Ulster front, he finds it hard to put his finger on what has gone right and wrong this season: “I suppose you could say ‘guys away in the Six Nations’ but every other club is in the same boat. We just need to keep working hard.”

While he does concede that it is a young team, he adds that “some of us need to start growing up a bit and taking more responsibility ourselves.” As Ulster’s only Lion that could well put the onus on him to step up in the coming years.

However, rugby isn’t all that he is interested in. While he’s at it, he fancies getting some life experience too. He makes no secret that he would like to play in the southern hemisphere, “probably South Africa or Australia”, but for now “the most important thing for me is establishing myself as a big player. I want to be the best back-rower in Ireland. I want to go away with the Lions and be number one so as soon as he reads out the team sheet, I’m the first back-rower to be read out.”

Concluding, his personal highlight was starting his Six Nations debut in Croke Park this year against France. After the game, changing beside Paul O’Connell, the Lions captain turned to him and said: “‘You know that’s the first time I’ve beaten France’. I was thinking ‘this is my debut and we beat them well.’”

He’ll have more chances to help the Lions captain better his record over the years but for now, he’ll be aiming to help him plot the Springboks’ downfall. At 23 he’ll be around for some time yet and, after all, he had to work to get here so why not enjoy it?

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