Stephen Ferris retires with no regrets as persistent injuries take toll

Ulster blindside flanker made umpteenth comeback from injury in April

A dejected Stephen Ferris after Ulster’s Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat  to Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast, in April. Photograph: Inpho

A dejected Stephen Ferris after Ulster’s Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat to Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast, in April. Photograph: Inpho

Wed, Jun 4, 2014, 01:00

Ulster knew from the “day and hour” Stephen Ferris walked into their fold that a peerless rugby specimen had been discovered. That he managed to make his umpteenth comeback in April is further testament to the mental fortitude he combined with an enormously punishing physicality.

“The way I played rugby was the way everybody wants to see the game played,” said the 28-year-old yesterday, as the body of arguably the most powerful man produced by Irish rugby pleaded with him to stop.

The surgeons, just recently, agreed. Ferris and injury have gone hand in hand for many years. Certainly back to the 2009 Lions toured, where he excelled on the hard South African pitches yet failed to reach the Test series in one piece.

Yesterday’s confirmation feels like it has been a long time coming. “No, not really,” Ferries disagreed. “It is only over the last three weeks when I saw the surgeon. The best medical advice was that my time is up and the best thing for me and my ankle is that I retire because the ankle is not going to hold up or get any better.

“That was only a few weeks backs. I played against Saracens recently.”

He certainly did, coming off the bench for 20 minutes in the harrowing Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat in Belfast. Playing through the pain barrier yet again. Within days he broke down again at training. After 16 months fighting severely damaged ligaments, he returned to the Ravenhill turf last March, instantly creating his latest and last youtube clip with a driving, thunderous tackle on some poor unfortunate. In one fell swoop you realised how much he had been missed. But it proved a false dawn.

“It has been a difficult couple of months because my ankle was really sore but it is a relief to announce my retirement because the last couple of weeks have been hell.”

Long list

Ferris’ list of injuries are longer than the average rugby player, which makes his achievements so admirable. Coaches, opponents and teammates all marvelled at his power. “We knew from the day and hour that he walked into the Academy that he was an exceptional talent,” said Ulster director of rugby David Humphreys. “Through dedication and hard work he developed into one of the best forwards in the world game.”

In an Irish context he is comparable to Ulster warriors like Willie John McBride, Ken Goodall, Stewart McKinney and Jeremy Davidson.

Jerome Kaino was considered the greatest blindside at the 2011 World Cup but Ferris is cut from the same cloth. The All Black took the Japanese club option for two years to allow his body heal. Kaino is back in New Zealand and should feature against England this Saturday. Ferris attempted that route last year but the ankle damage had already been done.

It seems like all these snaps and tears must be related but he remains adamant that joining the dots is not possible. “This was one specific, isolated injury. Happened against Edinburgh on the second of November, 2012. Just a really bad ankle injury. Had three operations to try to get it fixed.

“There is scarring, the ankle has hardly any movement in it. When I got running on it it got extremely sore and started swelling up. One thing leads to the other. I hurt my knee before the 2011 World Cup and was out for four months but that was on my other leg. Never had a problem with that since. The ankle was just an isolated injury on a Friday night in Ravenhill that has cost me my career.”

Ulster supporters have many memories to cherish like the epic showing at Thomond Park in the 2012 European Cup quarter-final. In a green jersey he was immense throughout the unbeaten 2009 campaign and nobody should ever forget Eden Park against Australia in 2011. Will Genia certainly won’t.

“Listen, I know there have been a helluva a lot of dark days, dark months on the sidelines but there are guys like Luke Fitzgerald who have been out for a long time who feel my pain but you got to weigh the bad times with the good times. I’ve had a lot of good times, I’ve achieved a lot, I’ve won a lot.”

Grand Slam

For starters, his name is etched into the greatest Ireland team in modern times. Number six on Ireland XV that delivered only a second ever Grand Slam, even if he didn’t last long in Cardiff due to a broken finger.

“I retire, hang up the boots, with no regrets.”

Only 35 caps for Ireland is a regret others will have though. His last test match was defeat at Twickenham in 2012. That meant his final games for Ulster and Ireland ended in crushing defeat. “We can’t be all like Drico! But no man was more deserving of his exit.”

The concern still lingers about the brutal way he played and that it might have contributed to his premature demise. “I don’t think it did. I injured my knee celebrating a pushover try when a prop bashed into me. I hurt my ankle stepping off it. It wasn’t as if I was smashing into somebody or wrecking myself. None of my injuries came from that. They were always innocuous circumstances.

“The way I played rugby was the way everybody wants to see the game played. That’s why everybody came to support me and why I have such a good following. It surprised me so much today, the support, that everybody is going to miss me playing rugby but I hope I have given them some good memories over the years.”

Not good memories, bone-crunchingly great ones.

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