‘Man and Ball’ – Stephen Ferris in his own words: Brian Spencer on this frank autobiography

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Former Irish international Stephen Ferris at the Europa Hotel for the launch of his book, ‘Man and Ball’, September 22 2015.

From bonfire builder to British and Irish Lion. From Buckfast day drinker to BMW M3 driver on £100,000K a year. From an unstoppable force to a fragile retiree. In a game swaddled in opacity and newspeak, Ferris is candid and transparent. His is a life of contradictions and a counter-destiny. ‘Man And Ball’ is a fascinating read about a fascinating life. 

 

At his book launch at the Europa Hotel he was feted as though he had just received his 100th Irish cap.

He only has 35 caps, and at only 30 years of age he has been consigned to early retirement, and here he is heralded as a athlete of Homeric proportions. The adulation accorded the man in spite of relatively few international fields indicates the precedent he laid out and the unbounded potential he exhibited. His awesome physicality, prowess and performances bolted him firmly into the Pantheon of Irish and world rugby greats. Jim Neilly labelled him “the Leviathan”, the Irish lads call him “Freak of Nature” and the British and Irish Lions affectionately referred to the then 23 year old as “the white Samoan”.

The lad from Maghaberry, Stephen Ferris – arguably the best rugby number 6 to have played the game in the world – is Ulster and Ireland’s own.

Now he has just turned 30 and published his first book. He should be playing for Ireland in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, but that door closed. And he’s opened and is opening others.

The launch was on September 23 2015, hosted by Easons and Stephen Watson. A fun and lively night but hard-nosed too, just like the man the people went to see.


Turning to the book, it’s a big read at 347 pages, front loaded with a foreword from Rory McIlroy. This is stamp of approval which buoys you for the book ahead, and again reaffirms and reiterates the enormity of the Ferris the subject. Niall Foster said, like Will Genia it’s a book you just can’t put down.

The first two chapters set the scene. It is jarring and frantic charting the last 17 doleful months of Stephen Ferris’s professional rugby career. Yet in the face of downcast events Ferris stands positive, taking stock of the magnitude of what he achieved in 9 short and jolting years of professional rugby. It’s not entirely surprising he’s upbeat about life after rugby given that everything about his upbringing suggested he was destined for a life less guilded. It all turned on a decision to give it a crack:

“The quiet, awkward teenager that almost chose to stick with the £200-a-week job in the gelatine factory rather than pit himself against the best schoolboy rugby players Ulster had to offer.”

In his own words this is not a jeremiad about a rugby cursed by injury, but an uplifting tale of a good guy that makes good out of bad.

Chapter 3 starts in 1979 with the marriage of his mother and father, then turns to 1984 with the tragic death of his older brother Andrew. Stephen Ferris is born August 2 1985.

As typifies the book Stephen speaks with candour about his upbringing. Childhood is spent outside making a mess and creating mayhem with his older brother Dave and his band of friends.

From Lisburn the young family moved to Maghaberry not long after August ’85. He touches on culture and identity, fascinating for anyone politically minded, and interesting given that pro-rugby players are perfectly silent on politics or anything controversial. He wrote:

“The Troubles are words Dave and I hear about on the news but, mostly, it does not affect our lives. We live through them without ever being really being fully aware of their true scale and wider impact.

Maghaberry is quite a loyalist area. The majority of the people living here are protestant. Years ago it would have been where the prison officers lived because it was so close to the prison.

Each year, on 12th July, the Union Jack and Ulster flags go up. There is always a bonfire, every year. Neither of my parents have much to do with religion and I have taken their lead. I am not a Loyalist or a Unionist but I love [as a child]getting involved in scavenging for, and building, the bonfire. The older boys do most of the work but never refuse the offer of free help, or firewood.”

That is simply an extraordinary image. Extraordinary especially in the context of contemporary Northern Ireland – a loyalist bonfire builder turned Irish rugby player and British Lion.


A startling image but instructive also. On the Six Nations win in 2009 Ferris said:

“It is not just about us, but about the whole of Ireland.”

The book unfolds in the present tense, making the narrative more engaging; it is as though you are being addressed personally. So with the unionist-loyalist comments above we are unsure where Stephen now stands. Perhaps he has gone down the disdainful James Galway route, or like St John Ervine would punch you if you said he wasn’t Irish but remains very much a unionist. All idle speculation.

From Maghaberry Primary School Stephen follows his brother and enters Friends’ Grammar School. And there rugby enters his life. Rugby coach Barney McGonigle is the first to throw Stephen the oval ball. In Stephen’s last year McGonigle introduces the player to Allen Clarke, the game-changing moment which put Stephen into the gap and over the line towards rugby stardom.

Despite mischief and teenage revelry, weekend rugby is a constant. Before he was 13 he had no interest in rugby but by the time he is 15 he is a committed rugby player. Stephen tells the story of his success in track and field, becoming an all-Ireland champion in his age group – illustrating his ease for immense feats.

Sitting in Lisburn Tech in a routine of indolence and self-gratification he takes a call from Allen Clarke of the Ulster Academy. Ferris is invited to train with the Ulster Youths. This is autumn 2002 and he’s aged 17. Ferris is selected for the interprovincial series. The Ulster Youth team beats Munster and Connaught, and lose narrowly to Leinster.

Life now is suddenly an upward escalator. Next it’s Ireland Youths. The training and social set up is alien for Stephen but he prevails and is selected for the Four Nations. At the end of the 2002/2003 season Ferris is crowned Ulster Youths Player of the Year.

It’s like the perfect game of snakes and ladders, with a scenic and travelled upward ascent. Motoring around Ireland and soon jetting around the world.

Rugby may be up but studies are down. He drops out of Tech. It’s 2003 and Stephen is now a day labourer doing driveways. That gives way to work in Finlay’s Gelatine factory.

Next it’s Ulster and Ireland Under – 19s and by March 2004 Stephen is in South Africa for the underage World Cup. Stephen meets tragedy again with the death of John McCall when Ireland play New Zealand in Durban. This event is the catalyst for Stephen to step up a gear “and start taking rugby seriously.” The “days of being a hallion” are in the past.

Back in Ireland Stephen enters the Ulster Academy and plays with Dungannon RFC under Jeremy Davidson. With Ulster he is on £340 a month. On remuneration for playing rugby Ferris is very transparent, a major theme in the book.

It’s the interprovincial series now with Ulster Under-21s. They win it for the first time in Ulster’s history. They go on to beat New Zealand Youths. Then it’s Ireland Under-21 in Argentina. He’s now playing with top shots from the schools system; people like Chris Henry, Paul Marshall, Caldwell and Trimble, and Southern players like Sexton and Kevin McLaughlin; And playing against players like Ruan Pienaar. He’s playing champagne rugby and even drinking a fair bit off the pitch. That is one of the most surprising points in the book, how blasé it is for pro-players to go out to suck a few or even a good many beers.
For the first time we hear of Stephen meeting with the injustice of injury.

With his sails in full wind Stephen lands a development contract at the start of the 2005/06 season. Penning a contract for £8,000. He is disappointed. He could be out making driveways for double that. To dispel doubt Ms Ferris and her son sit down with Allen Clarke.

‘Look, Linda, I’m not filling your head full of magic here. Your son Stephen is going to play for Ireland.’

Ulster in 2005 is still crawling out of the amateur era. Dodgy facilities with crumbling ceilings.
From day labouring two years previously Stephen Ferris makes his full Ulster debut against the Border Reivers in October 2005. Soon after he is playing against Munster and mixing with their seasoned pros, O’Gara et al.

Stephen simply jumps from plateau to plateau with remarkable speed and rhythm. In January 2006 he gets his Heineken Cup debut. The experienced New Zealander Campbell Feather, a “dickhead” in the eyes of Ferris, is proprietor of the Ulster number 8 jersey. Soon “Feather is completely forgotten about”, courtesy of the barnstorming performances of Ferris.

This is another theme of the book, The plain-speaking frankness of Ferris.

Now he is part of the Ulster squad. At the end of the season he is earning £27,000. For 2006/07 he signs a full contract for £35,000. 25 October 2006 and Ferris is training with the actual Ireland squad, running around with the guys he grew up watching on TV. Ferris is aged only 21.

His impact is immediate. Paul O’Connell calls him “a fucking freak.”

In November 2006 he makes his debut under Eddie O’Sullivan against the Pacific Islanders. Debuting alongside Heaslip, Ferris is Irish international number 1,001. He is now earning £100,000.

The season ahead looks as propitious and bountiful as his bank balance. However plans are scuppered with a tear in his thumb. He is ruled out of the 2007 Six Nations. This is the first major interruption to Stephen’s career. Many more will come.
He recovers and makes the summer tour to Argentina. The next year continues on at this rhythm: galloping form and great hopes interrupted and postponed by injury.

He makes the 2007 Rugby World Cup squad at the expense of Jamie Heaslip who featured in the Six Nations; an indicator of the rising potential of Ferris. Bowe is another omission.

The tournament is spectacularly uneventful for Stephen. “Terrible” and “so unenjoyable”, as he is cast as a tackle bag for the duration.

He returns to Ulster in October 2007 and this period of the book is concerned with internal politics at Ulster and the glamour of being a M3 driving pro-rugby player.

The book is as much a charting of the evolution of rugby at Ulster as it is a life of Stephen Ferris. Mark McCall is sacked and replaced by Steve Williams of Pertemps Bees – a guy that “is completely out of his depth.”

Then in comes Matt Williams. Ferris dedicates 8-pages for landing thumping body blows on this former Ulster coach. A grievous literary assault. He calls the Australian a “bluffer” and a “laughing stock”. It’s relentless.

“Matt was the master of appearing to know everything but, as it turned out, he did not seem to me to know that much.”

Though “it’s not Matt William’s fault”, but “the people who employed him” – then Ulster Chief Executive Mike Reid.
Stephen is in the air again, now heading to Australia for his second summer tour with the seniors with Michael Bradley after the Eddie O’Sullivan departure. He gets 65 minutes against Australia after a Shane Jennings rib injury. Injury hasn’t always borne pain for Ferris but has also opened doors.

“Out of all the games I play for Ireland, this, I feel, is one of my best ever performances. It is the turning point of my international career, out playing openside.”

Under this momentum he is straight into the Irish XV for Canada, New Zealand and Argentina during the 2008 autumn internationals, scoring a try against the All Blacks.

By his own admission Stephen is “injury prone”.

“Every time a really big game is coming up, it seems, I get injured or take a knock the week before.”

By the 2009 Six Nations he feels like he has the green number 6 jersey and has reached the big time. Ireland beat England 14-13 and Ferris starts in every game. The decider is in Cardiff against Wales. The injustice of injury strikes again as Ferris leaves the field due to a serious finger injury. Ireland win in last gasp fashion.

With the Grand Slam win Ferris has his hands on a ticket to South Africa to represent the British and Irish Lions, “the best tour I have ever been on.” At the book launch he said, “It was the best rugby I’ve played, I was in the shape of my life.”
Then the clash of contradictions. Opportunity then gives way to the impasse of injury. “For the second time in three months I am in tears.” 
Stephen made a seismic impact in the Lions fraternity, christened the “White Samoan,” he made sure he will feature in every Lions’ highlight reel for all time with his length of field try against the Golden Lions.

Ferris is on the plane home after a freak training patch injury. However he is reflective. In the Summer 2008 he was supposed to be playing in America for Ireland A (one man’s injury is another man’s opportunity) and within 12 months he has reached the highest office of playing world rugby.

The 2009/10 season begins with the installation at Ravenhill of Brian McLauglin as head coach, the Ulster club and schools rugby legend.

Ferris writes highly of McLaughlin. At the book launch he said:

“Brian McLaughlin wasn’t just a good coach but a good friend as well. He got the best out of players. I think it was a mistake. I feel for Brian.”

Fortunes are mixed for this season. Meeting injury in the Heineken Cup he misses the start of the Six Nations with Ireland. Any chance of silverware is gone with a loss to Scotland. Ulster are ejected from the Heineken Cup. Events turn crueller yet again as Ferris misses the 2010 Summer tour to New Zeland after another training field injury. Significantly, Stephen notes, “rugby is changing, year on year.”

He gets knocked down but cannot but keep getting back up, time after time. Fez is back in the Irish XV for the 2010 autumn internationals against New Zealand and Argentina. Ferris is then out of the Heineken Cup due to a knee injury; and of course he misses the 2011 Six Nations. The task now is to sort out the knee for the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.

Having been a human tackle bag in 2007 with Eddie O’Sullivan, under Declan Kidney Ferris is the main man for Ireland . He is at the centre the Irish XV and the centre of the rugby world with his iconic lift of Will Genia during the green victory over Australia. Talk is that Ireland possesses the best back row in the world. From euphoria Ireland are then in the dumps as they are dumped out of the tournament by a formidable Welsh outfit.

“Even before I board a flight for home, just like the Lions, I am targeting the next World Cup. 2015 cannot come fast enough… September 2015 – mark it on the calendar.”

With the timing of the book launch for September 2015 these words have a cruel irony. Back with Ulster and they team are doing well under McLaughlin. They reach the last 8 before Christmas.

The 2012 Six Nations is “the lowest point” of the Ferris career after the loss to Wales.

By now Stephen has reached a new level of rugby consciousness and physiology.

“When I am fit, nobody can challenge for my jersey. That may sound cocksure but I believe my coaches feel the same. When I am fit, it is Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell, Rory Best, Rob Kearney, Stephen Ferris. First five names on the teamsheet.”

Back to Ulster and the end of the McLaughlin administration is announced. He will finish the end of the 2012 season and be replaced by Mark Anscombe.

Ulster play a Munster team in the quarter-final on April 6 2012, a team which ‘pumped” them earlier in the season. The northern men defy the odds and win 22-16 at Thomond Park.

Next is the semi-final in Dublin against Edinburgh. Ulster win with a 10/10 performance from Ferris. He repeats the indefatigable sense of self-belief he now possesses:

“Whenever I take to the pitch, I want to be the best. I believe I am the best… I want to be the best player in the world. As far as I see it, what is the point of being one of the best players in the Ulster team? I want to be one of the world’s best.”

Talk is of Ferris being European Player of the Year. He’s facing a Heineken Cup Final. Things look good.

Soon all is down. Twenty minutes into the final and Ferris tears his calf. The forwards and backs are being dominated all over the pitch. Leinster win 42-14 in the biggest ever Heineken final defeat. Fez ends with his calf done in and a dislocated thumb.

He lauds the coach that brought Ulster to the last two:

“Brian has a lot more to offer the Ulster senior team. A lot of players feel that way as well. After he is moved, or, as I put it, sacked, anyone you talk to struggles with the logic… The only man to bring Ulster consistency and get them challenging in Europe again.”

From nearly being European Player of the Year Ferris finds himself winning nothing and missing the summer tour for want of a working thumb.

Saturday September 15 2012 and Stephen gets another hammer blow. The death of Nevin Spence. He wasn’t very close to the late ulster player, but held affection for him and held him in high regard.

Friday 2 Novemver 2012, the beginning of the end. Ferris suffers the disastrous ankle injury that starts the 17 month curtain call on his triumphal yet tragic rugby career.

“I have not run since the Saracens game. I do not intend to run, ever again, because my ankle will not allow me to.”

Stephen took his opportunities through the injuries to others. The 2008 tour to Australia, the “springboard” event, came after an Alan Quinlan injury.

Over the last pages of the book Stephen takes the reader on a intimate walk, looking back over the last 17 tedious and tortuous months of his career. A period that saw 3 operations, countless meetings and an unending internal monologue of doubt and of slowly diminishing optimism.

In a rugby world that is over stage-managed, personality and opinion have been evacuated and been replaced with calculated and hollow statements. Against this context this book is a relief. This book is candid, blunt and stirring.

Stephen will not play rugby again. He will not even run again. However he has a great career ahead in punditry and comment, as this book illustrates.

Stephen and his ghost writer Patrick McCarry have to be commended for this excellent publication.

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Brian is a writer, artist and law graduate.

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