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'Dark days' of rehab and recovery long behind Stephen Ferris

The flanker can look back with pride on a career with many more highs than lows.

STEPHEN FERRIS HAS always been an impressive specimen of an athlete.

Still is, but with competition no longer on the menu, he is wary not to become a gym rat caricature.

“I’ll soon look like one of these pictures on Facebook: ‘this guy forgot about legs.’

hulko Source: Facebook/Don't skip leg day

“The fashion trend of skinny jeans don’t help either,” says the flanker with relentless buoyancy.

We’ve all heard about Ferris’ ability to shift big numbers in the gym, but one of proudest moments he outlines in his excellent autobiography Man and Ball was when he was able to give an answer to the part-concern, part-challenge of Brian O’Driscoll: ‘I hope he’s able to play rugby and not just lift weights.

Rugby Union - IRB Rugby World Cup 2011 - Pool C - Australia v Ireland - Eden Park Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Since his limbs gave up on him last year, steaming in to tacklers and ball-carriers isn’t really an option any more. Yet we doubt that Ferris is completely ignoring leg day, he still weighs in at a hefty and lean 110 kilogrammes.

Like most recently-retired pros, Ferris finds himself dealing with one big question above all others whenever somebody recognises him on the street:

“What are you doing with yourself now? What are you doing with yourself now? What are you doing with yourself now,” he repeats, perhaps with a little extra exasperation as he’s only halfway through a day full of interviews.

I say: ‘Look, listen. I didn’t expect to retire until about five years down the line. So at the minute I’m finding my feet in the real world.’

Sounds more than fair. Besides, it’s not like ‘Fez’ is sitting at home all day every day gathering dust. He’s already regular pundit on BBC and BT viewers will be treated to his opinion when the Champions Cup comes around early next month. He’s busy, but making sure to keep time free for things he enjoys.

Stephen Ferris Source: Presseye/William Cherry/INPHO

Lord knows he’s been through his fair share of the hard side of rugby. It takes a certain confidence for Ferris to state his position so clearly, there’ll always be somebody willing to take pot shots no matter what decision is made. It’s a confidence that doesn’t seem to have come easy for Ferris; the book is filled with incidents where the Ulster man is scolding himself for getting a little ahead of himself, a little too cock-sure before he was paying for a mistake.

It was through rugby with Dungannon, Ulster and Ireland that he began to find confidence less of a weight.

I didn’t run around thinking I was better than anybody, not in the slightest. I think people will tell you that on a rugby pitch it took me a long time to find my confidence. Even when I was playing my international debut, I felt like a boy against men, and that was me at the top level. I wasn’t confident in myself or confident in my ability. I took a couple of years.

“Growing up, I always believed I was good at sport: one of the fastest in school, strongest in school, so of course that’s going to give you confidence. I was able to use that throwing the javelin and winning the national championships. I was probably a little naive growing up. I never ever thought I was going to be a professional rugby player.”

Not until current Ulster forwards coach Allen Clarke sat down in his kitchen and embarrassed the 19-year-old Ferris by informing his mother that he was plenty good enough to play for Ulster and Ireland.

Play for them he did, 106 and 35 times respectively, until a heartbreaking night for Ulster beckoned Ferris off the bench and ended his career for good.

It can be difficult to keep track of which injury did Ferris in. Knee, ankle? Maybe a bit of the knock-on effect of both. And sure throw in his feet while you’re at it.

“The ankle itself actually isn’t too bad. It’s my feet. I’ve neuromas in my toes which comes and goes. I’ve got nerve damage in my feet, because when I came back running I was running a lot on my toes. My ankle didn’t have the flexibility to take the strain so I was running on my toes and that’s lead to these neuromas.”

The damage means Ferris’ once-mighty pounding feet are now susceptible to swelling if they are subjected to prolonged use. That often rules out long walks, standing ‘for the few pints’ and doubtless limits him to 18 holes when he finally has the time to play 27. Even long-haul flights have brought on severe discomfort.

New Zealand WCUP Rugby World Cup Australia Ireland Source: Junji Kurokawa

“When I was travelling there – I went away for four months – when we got to Thailand, I walked into the hotel and sat down on the bed and my ankle was like this,” says the Portadown man with his hands making the shape of a grapefruit.

”From the plane, the travelling, walking… I hadn’t played rugby in six or nine months and that’s how it looked!

“It’s something you just deal with. I’ve had busted thumbs, my knee gives me a lot of jip, plates in my face… You look at Seanie O’Brien, been under the knife so much, but you just deal with it.”

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‘Dealing with it’ has been easier for Ferris since he hung up his boots and iconic scrum cap. He’s retired, so no more feeling that he’s missing out on big games or letting the side down and no more lying to people trying to convince them that he’s on the fast track back.

“It’s more mental than anything,” he says when we ask what exactly players mean when they use the phrase ‘dark days’ when going through rehab.

“You start to get a bit depressed, you get down on yourself. But when I was in the workplace – in around Ravenhill – I was always upbeat, positive.

‘How’s the ankle?

‘Aw, not too bad!’

“Even though it was feeling terrible.

Stephen Ferris 26/9/2013 Ferris 'in the workplace' while Kingspan Stadium was being redeveloped. Source: Presseye/Brian Little/INPHO

“Sometimes that’s not a good way to be. You should try to express your emotions more to people. Sometimes it’s better to do that to a physio, or head coach or strength and conditioning coach, instead of just your family. Talk to guys who are in the workplace, who understand.

“It took me a long time to realise that. I just kept everything in, kept everything in. After a while I opened up and I was able to say ‘this isn’t right’ instead of walking round going ‘yeah. Not too bad, lads!’

Dark days: when you see your mates out training, the sun shining and you’re looking out the window with the foot up, ankle iced and a guy comes in:

‘How’s the ankle, when are ya back?’

‘Eh, not too bad. Not sure when I’m back.’

“He’s out for like six months with an Achilles injury, wandering round in his protective boot feeling 100%. In the back of my mind I felt I’d never be 100% again, which isn’t a good way to feel.”

“Guys are breaking their hands, they’ve come and gone and you’re still there. You’re still in that weights group, still the first one in to ice his ankle, you’re the first name on the physio board in the morning, the last name in the afternoon, you go home…

“It’s repetitive, the same shit.

Rugby Union - Heineken Cup - Quarter Final - Ulster v Saracens - Ravenhill Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

“Because Laura was working, mum and dad were working, you find yourself home at three o’clock sitting there for three hours watching TV — not really watching TV — sitting with an ice pack on your ankle thinking ‘what’s next? My career’s over’.

Man and Ball – named for Ferris’ method of combating the All Blacks offloading prowess – is a rollercoaster of a book. The blindside describes a career full of joyful highs, but between the toil of injury and the death of team-mates he considered friends, the lows are never more than a page or two away either.

Putting it all on the page with his ghostwriter Pat McCarry has helped Ferris, helped him take pride in the success he enjoyed as opposed to wondering what might have been.

“It was great writing a book, because it brings back a lot of memories. When you start talking about things, more comes in to your head. So to actually put it all down on paper kind of makes you realise what you did achieve.

Rugby Union - Tour Match - Golden Lions v British and Irish Lions - Coca-Cola Park Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

“Sometimes you can just brush over it and go ‘ah, the career was hampered by injury a bit..’ but when you read it all back there are a lot more positives, a lot more highs than there were lows.

“You just don’t know what’s around the corner in this game. And, the way things are going, everyone’s bigger, faster, stronger and fitter so if you get eight or nine years at the top like I did, take it and run.”

“I look back on it as a career, not cut short, but a career I made the most of. It makes me proud, because I achieved a good bit.

“I achieved everything you can between the two World Cups, Lions tour, Grand Slam… it can’t all be bad.”

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Sean Farrell

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