Ken Sutton/INPHO Rónan Kelleher scores a try against New Zealand at the Aviva.
Ferris: One Test win in New Zealand would make for a positive summer for Ireland
The former Ireland star on Johnny Sexton at U20 level, Andy Farrell’s back-row dilemma, and an inevitable Kiwi backlash.

HE REMAINS A pivotal figure for Ireland as his 37th birthday fast approaches but it wasn’t always apparent that Jonathan Sexton would turn into the international stalwart he is today.

During his formative years on underage Ireland squads, the Leinster man often found himself playing second fiddle at out-half to Gareth Steenson – the Armagh native who went on to enjoy major success across the channel with Exeter Chiefs.

Younger than Sexton by just 22 days, former Ulster and Ireland back-row Stephen Ferris was part of the same age group and recalls how the traits that have defined the Dubliner throughout his professional career helped him to eventually progress up the international pecking order.

“On the way around the corner, I passed Blackrock College. We used to train there and we used to stay in Tara Towers Hotel. A miserable hotel, it has thankfully been taken over by Maldron or something. We used to stay there and jog the odd time around the training pitches and Sexto was just hours and hours kicking, spiralling the ball,” Ferris explained at the launch of Ireland’s new home jersey for the 2022/23 season.

“Kicking for posts and he was just religious in everything that he did. We were already having a cup of coffee back at the hotel and he was still just meticulously going through everything, just trying to make himself a better player.

He hated that Gareth Steenson was ahead of him. It drove him up the wall. He’d fall out with people and he just couldn’t understand why he wasn’t selected. It’s just that drive and determination, and it’s the character of the fella. I got on so well with him at underage rugby and it’s a credit to him, and him alone, that he’s made it this far.

mack-hansen-and-jonathan-sexton Billy Stickland / INPHO Johnny Sexton in Ireland training. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Because it was where he spent his entire career (which was sadly cut short by injury at just 28 years of age in 2014), Ferris has a great interest in the back row Andy Farrell is going to select for Ireland’s first Test encounter on the Tour of New Zealand at Eden Park on 2 July.

Although there is the prospect of an all-Leinster combination in the shape of Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan, Farrell could be persuaded to include Peter O’Mahony at the base of scrum.

If the Munster captain is given the nod, it is Conan who will more than likely miss out with Doris taking over from him at number eight and O’Mahony assuming the latter’s duties on the blindside. Doris has oscillated between both of these positions for Leinster and Ireland in recent times, but Ferris cautioned that moving the Mayo man out of the number six jersey will alter how he plays.

“People always ask me ‘Oh, what’s the difference? Surely it’s just exactly the same?’ It’s not exactly the same, it’s definitely not. You’ve more to worry about at the back of scrums. You might not keep your width as much when you’re playing number eight off line-outs.

“You look at even someone like Marcell Coetzee, who played number eight the whole time for Ulster and he was negated quite a bit when he came up against big teams. All of a sudden he’s wearing the six jersey for the Bulls and Elrigh Louw is wearing number eight. You see him a lot more in the middle of the park.

“You see him a lot more, third, fourth phase. You see him keeping width. There are subtle differences between playing six or eight. It will be interesting to see how Andy looks at that. Jack Conan seems to be the guy who misses out. He always seems to be the one who is put onto the bench if they’re giving someone an opportunity.”

AJ5I7963 Stephen Ferris at the launch of the new Canterbury-manufactured Ireland men's and women's team jerseys.

Despite scoring the first of his two senior international tries against them in November 2010, Ferris never got the better of New Zealand as a player. Since his retirement, however, Ireland have gone on to defeat the All Blacks on three separate occasions – once in Soldier’s Field, Chicago (2016) and twice at the Aviva Stadium (2018 and 2021).

With last November’s 29-20 triumph still fresh in their minds, he expects Ian Foster’s charges will be out to prove a point across their three upcoming tests with Ireland.

“I think if Ireland went out there and got one Test win, that would be so good and so positive going into next year. People forget, we only just beat New Zealand for the first time a couple of years back. Now because we play such really good, expansive rugby and ran them ragged all over the pitch last November, everyone expects us now to go to New Zealand and get a Test series win. That’s just not going to be the case.

“Ireland have a huge target on their back. I think they embarrassed New Zealand a little bit in that game as well, just with the style of rugby. It was almost too easy and you know yourselves, you were probably watching it going ‘Ah jeez, how is this happening!?’ They can’t let that happen again and they certainly won’t,” Ferris added.

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