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Don’t let the big game pass you by: 2011 still hurts Stephen Ferris
The retired blindside could be among the Ireland ranks under different circumstances this weekend, and he knows the hurt they carry into this World Cup.

THERE ARE LONG large tracts of Stephen Ferris’ hugely entertaining autobiography Man and Ball dedicated to just how much out and out craic he had as a rugby player.

Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip 2/9/2011 Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Yet even now that it’s all over, there is still one frustration that grinds on his skin like sandpaper.

Ferris’ book is a rollercoaster ride with the best of times always followed by some of the worst – and vice versa. The 2011 World Cup was no different. Ireland, having torn through the adrenaline junkie exploits and bars of Queenstown, slogged past the USA, battered down Australia, cruised past Russia and Italy before it all fell apart — chopped down in a quarter-final by Wales.

Stephen Ferris Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Familiar foes, an annoyingly familiar exit point from the World Cup for Ireland. It’s not quite Déjà vu threatening Ireland, but this is a tournament-defining game for Ireland, maybe even a career-defining match for those involved.

“It was like we were all brothers. It was one big family: we went out and partied together, we won together and lost together,” Ferris tells The42.

“One of the biggest regrets of my career was that loss to Wales. We just didn’t pitch up, didn’t turn up.”

Having beaten France twice in both of the most recent meetings and remained unbeaten since Les Bleus wore white in the last World Cup final, there is again an abundance of confidence around Ireland. There is no reason why the back-to-back Six Nations Champions can’t prove the formbook correct and force their way to a second successive top place in a World Cup pool.

As Ferris admits though, sometimes games just pass you by. It’s possible.

Inexplicable and terrifying, but possible.

“There are games that I’ve played for Ulster that have passed me by, but they don’t count. They didn’t really matter. We might have even won by a couple of points. It happens once or twice a season, it happens to everybody,” the retired blindside says with the look of a man still attempting to work it out.

Jonathan Sexton Stephen Ferris Paul O'Connell and Cian Healy near the end of the game Billy Stickland / INPHO Odd one out? Sexton, O'Connell, Healy and Kearney start for Ireland against France. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“But never in a million years did I expect it in that game. I was psyched up for that game, I was ready to go, I was physically prepared and mentally prepared for every scenario that was going to happen. Then when we got on the pitch, it didn’t happen. Seanie O’Brien held up over the line by Shane Williams, y’know?”

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That last sentence isn’t Ferris pointing blame, far from it. He counted O’Brien as one of his closest friends in the game, his partner in crime in Ireland camp. He cited the example to illustrate just how little sense it makes when it swirls in his head.

“When I ran out for Captain’s Run and warm-up I felt comfortable in my surroundings. I knew the fans would be far away and it might not be the same atmosphere, but nothing prepared me for the way that loss felt.”

Stephen Ferris gets upended Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“Kicking to the corner three or four times trying to get over the line and it just didn’t happen.

“I heard the whistle blow for 80 minutes and I was just like ‘whoa! Where did that go?’ And let’s face it; if Rhys Priestland hadn’t hit the posts a few times it could have been a bit more.

“I couldn’t get into the game either: I only carried the ball three or four times, couldn’t get any momentum. Seanie couldn’t get any momentum, Jamie Heaslip was quiet. We were tipped as one of the best back rows in world rugby and we were completely anonymous that day.

“It’s easy for people to say ‘games passed me by’, but it happened to me.”

“And we gave ourselves a lifeline, like. We scored in the corner – then we just didn’t kick on.

Stephen Ferris Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“Phwugh…” comes the noise from deep within Ferris that seems to sum the whole afternoon up.

“It’s just one of those games you wish you could turn back the clock.”

Regrets are no craic at all.

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