Pundit Stephen Ferris has high hopes for Ulster
Stephen Ferris was part of the last Ulster team to bring silverware back to Belfast, David Humphreys’ dramatic late drop goal at the Ospreys clinching the domestic league title back in 2006.
The former Ireland and Lions flanker was in a back row that night at the Liberty Stadium with Neil Best and Roger Wilson.
Instead of building on that success, the team quickly broke up with Best and Wilson signing for Northampton Saints while Tommy Bowe also crossed the Irish Sea to play for the Ospreys.
It has been a long 16 years since that night in Swansea, with many false dawns - but Ferris, now a pundit with Premier Sports, feels after big wins against Leinster, Clermont and Northampton that this Ulster side could be on the verge of breaking its trophy drought...but will need three big performances in the festive derbies against Connacht, Leinster and Munster.
“Is this their best chance? (Marcell) Coetzee was brought in a couple of years ago, is this their best chance? Charles Piutau was brought in, is it their best chance? He’s a superstar who can light it up,” said Ferris. “Even looking back to when ‘Trimby’ (Andrew Trimble) and I were playing, they seem to be a better coached side than we probably were, after four or five phases we seemed to play what was in front of us but our skill level wasn’t as good.
The guys up front, they’re really fronting up, they’ve got a little strength in depth, that 2011 and 2012 run we went on, Brian McLaughlin was the coach and the same 23 players were wheeled out every week.
“Dan (McFarland) has been calling on 35 players over the past few months and will call on more.
“So, yeah, certainly they are in with a chance, on both fronts the URC is definitely the easier draw, you don’t have to play Racing 92 or Leicester in the play-off so they’ve just got to keep winning and make sure they get their home draw and be in a good chance...I wouldn’t say their best in the last decade but they’re in a good place.”
Leinster, laden with success, has been the province the other three look at with envy, Ulster having been vying with Munster and Connacht for the best-of-the-rest title in the Irish pecking order.
“It feels like it’s changing every couple of months,” said Ferris. “This week is another opportunity to raise the bar of the pecking order of where the provinces are, I’m really excited about the Connacht game.”
Nick Timoney’s performances in the Ulster backrow have overshadowed Duane Vermeulen’s arrival at Kingspan Stadium, the Dubliner can play all three positions in the backrow but Ferris would keep him at openside flanker.
“I think it’s in the 7, he’s so good over the ball, he’s got a real turn of pace and is so fast and that helps if a line break is going to be made,” said Ferris. “On first phase he’s always there, he’s usually first off the scrum, he carries the ball very hard, very explosive, very slight bit of footwork, he doesn’t go around hammering boys but I don’t think he needs that in his game because he is go good at getting off the line and closing down the space.
“And he’s try scoring as well, he’s just continuing in top form...I am sure he doesn’t want to be given a break.
“When you’re playing that level of rugby, you just want to keep at it.”
Premier Sports will have full live Boxing Day coverage of Ulster v Connacht (Premier Sports 1, 5.05pm), plus Connacht v Munster (Premier Sports 1, 5pm) and Ulster v Leinster (Premier Sports 1, 7.25pm) on New Year’s Day then Munster v Ulster on January 8 (Premier Sports 2, 7pm).
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