Saturday’s win over Scotland saw yet another world-class performance from Stephen Ferris. We’re used to talking about the blindside’s phenomenal ball-carrying ability, but Saturday was more about the Ulster man’s defensive game. Ferris didn’t manage to get his hands on the ball as much as other games in this championship, but his work in the tackle and breakdown was inspirational.
In The Touchline’s opinion, Ferris has only been narrowly overshadowed by Rob Kearney as Ireland’s player of the tournament so far. Following a strong World Cup in 2011, Ferris has been unstoppable for Ulster in both the PRO12 and the Heineken Cup. His dynamic power on the ball is a nightmare for any team and he has been a real leader for his province. Based on that form, Ferris was relatively quiet in the Six Nations opener against Wales.
That loss to Wales didn’t see Ferris used in the right way in attack. Ulster get the best out of their talisman by allowing him to get on the ball in wider channels (good examples here and here), where his ability to beat players one-on-one is far more effective. That doesn’t necessarily mean having Ferris constantly hang around out on the wing, but it does mean using him less as a ‘hit-up’ runner off the scrum-half’s pass from the ruck, where multiple tacklers can slow him down.
The Italy match saw a massively improved performance from Ferris primarily because Ireland’s set-up for that game suited him so much more. When he carried, it was at least outside the first receiver, allowing him those one-on-one situations in which he thrives. The prime example was Ferris’ clean line-break through midfield ending with a lovely offload to Tommy Bowe, who uncharacteristically knocked-on. We could be seeing more successful link-ups from that pair next season with Ulster.
Another aspect of the Irish game plan against Italy that suited Ferris was the more aggressive line speed. As was widely bemoaned in the aftermath of the Wales match, the Irish defence was far too passive, allowing Wales to win the majority of collisions. The Italy match saw Ireland up their line-speed. The more aggressive attitude grew again for the trip to Paris, where the first half saw Ireland into a healthy lead because of their superb defensive work. Ferris is magnificently suited to a blitz-style defence.
The flanker’s freakish strength and speed, allied with a strong understanding of how the blitz works, allow him to come up with important defensive plays. Ferris clearly relishes being given the opportunity to rush up in defence, making tackles on his own terms. After making only 8 tackles in the Welsh match, Ferris has led the Irish tackle-count charts in all three of the next games – Italy (12), France (14) and Scotland (18).
On Saturday against Scotland, Ferris actually only managed to get his hands on the ball 5 times. One of those was his try-scoring pass for Andrew Trimble’s try. His performance was all about defence. Inside the opening 10 minutes, Ferris had already made two turnovers of Scottish possession, the first with a choke tackle, the second a fantastic steal at ruck-time to win a penalty. The 26-year-old didn’t let up for the rest of the game, winning nearly every collision he was involved in.
With O’Driscoll and O’Connell missing, Ferris has become one of Ireland’s leaders on the pitch. His bruising carrying and defensive work are as inspirational as Kearney’s fielding and counter-attacking. We are lucky to have a player of Ferris’ world-class calibre and need to continue to get the best out of him.
Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane.