Monday 24 July 2017

Vincent Hogan: Fitzgerald searching for Easy Street again

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Fr Joe Gough remembers his first glimpse of Luke Fitzgerald.

The front field in Blackrock on "a wet, windy, mucky day" and St Mary's U-13s floating a succession of missiles on the gale towards 'Rock's blond full-back. The kid didn't so much cope as roll his eyes towards the heavens. For, catching ball was his thing.

"He was taking everything out of the air, running back at them and gaining loads of ground," chuckles Gough in recall.

"I said to someone: 'Who is that?' 'Oh, that's Dessie Fitzgerald's son,' they said. I now joke that Des has progressed to being Luke's dad!"

Fitzgerald always had the look of a kid with stardust in his boots. He would win one Junior and two Senior Cups with 'Rock, play for the Irish schools a year young, then sit out the next year only because his parents believed he wasn't devoting enough time to his studies.

His talent couldn't have been more conspicuous if he played in a ten-gallon hat with a rattlesnake band on it.

In his autobiography 'Blue Blood' last year, Bernard Jackman spoke of Fitzgerald's uncommon self-confidence. "Mentally he has always been one of the strongest and most focused young players any of us can remember coming into the (Leinster) team," wrote Jackman.

"We've been giving him such a hard time about being a 'Jedward' lookalike. Truth is, he's as far removed from the likes of 'X-Factor' as any young man could possibly be."

Luke had a name, not so much for overcoming challenges as ignoring them. He went straight from school into the Leinster Academy and had won a first senior international cap by November 2006 at the age of 19. Just over two years later, he was an ever-present as Ireland won their first Grand Slam in 61 years and a Test player for the Lions in South Africa.

Eddie O'Sullivan, who introduced him to senior international rugby, recalls hearing of the young Fitzgerald while he was still a schools player. "He was just someone who was earmarked for the top from day one," recalls O'Sullivan.

"I mean, even Brian O'Driscoll wasn't earmarked in the same way. Luke just had extraordinary skill and was mentally and physically very tough. He could catch, run, pass and beat people. Most people had heard about him before they saw him. Looking back, he sprang on the scene well ahead of his time."

Fitzgerald was playing rugby as if it came wrapped in celebratory ribbons.

Then, in November of '09, those ribbons unraveled. He admits that he cried on discovering the seriousness of his knee injury after a collision with Australia's Quade Cooper during the 'Autumn Series' at Croke Park. The lateral collateral ligament in his left knee had ruptured.

Change

"I was upset because I thought it might be the end," he would subsequently reflect. "I had to move back home for a few months. It certainly changed the way I look at the game. You realise how fickle sport can be and how quickly it can all change for you."

He missed the entire 2010 Six Nations and then, cruelly, hurt the knee again in the 18-38 defeat to the All Blacks last November.

By the time this year's Six Nations dawned, Fitzgerald himself reflected that, psychologically, he now existed in a very different place. After the threadbare defeat of Italy in Rome, he talked of the public's expectations of him being "pretty low."

As he put it: "It's tough at times. I was a little more nervous than usual, I must admit. I didn't have a very comfy sleep last night, I was tossing and turning a bit." The image was hard to reconcile with the 'Rock kid, for whom the rest of schools rugby could have passed for a chorus line.

Fitzgerald would play full-back in Ireland's first four Championship games this season, then be omitted from the match 22 for the concluding fixture against England. His form had, at best, been patchy. Declan Kidney reckoned he was trying too hard.

He plays, primarily, on the wing for Leinster and will do so against Leicester Tigers in tomorrow's Heineken Cup quarter-final. It isn't a position he was accustomed to at school, where his skill-set recommended him for more central roles, including out-half. Yet, wing probably suits Fitzgerald fine just now.

For Luke is, palpably, fighting for his confidence. The sight of him dropping 'Garryowens' in this year's Six Nations startled Gough. "Luke is a very good fielder of the ball," says the Blackrock coach. "He comes from a Gaelic background, so it's most unlike him to drop so many and to make so many mistakes. I was very surprised.

"But he's been rushing at the ball too much. And Luke is so good he's sometimes thinking of his second or third move before he's even got possession of the ball. In other words, he's already beaten the man coming to meet him and is thinking about the next one almost before he's even got hold of the ball.

"So, I would agree with Declan Kidney. If anything, he's been trying too hard. He needs to relax more. The injuries have undoubtedly been a factor. He's trying to prove himself again too quickly.

"Expectations are so great with Luke that, when he gets the ball, he thinks he has to respond accordingly. He made very uncharacteristic mistakes in the Six Nations. Not a lot, but a number in each game. If he relaxes more under the ball and learns to trust his team-mates to deliver the ball better to him, he'll be a better player for it."

A teetotaller and fluent Irish speaker, Luke is resolutely diplomatic in public discourse. In this, he is cut from a different cloth to his father. Des Fitzgerald won 34 caps as a prop for Ireland back in the days of amateurism and institutionalised condescension from the IRFU towards its players.

He tended to be sparing in his opinions, but, those he did express, identified Des as an independent thinker.

Once, he suggested the Union to be "full of Erich Honekers," in reference to the former East German leader. "The difference is that, in our world, the Wall is not coming down!" said Des.

Little did he (or any of us) know.

That wouldn't be Luke's voice and, yet, there was just a little shard of stridency in his tone this year when responding to Conor O'Shea's suggestion on RTE television that he may have been at fault for the Italian try in Rome. O'Shea, himself a former Ireland full-back, took the view that Fitzgerald had erred in stepping inside as Andrea Masi closed on the Irish try-line.

Whereas Des might have been inclined towards a few impolite suggestions as to what O'Shea might do with his opinion, Luke -- naturally -- bubble-packed his annoyance in politesse. It was, he said, "really interesting" to hear O'Shea's view, but he "got that one wrong."

"The guys in the studio were saying that Brian O'Driscoll was trying to push me out. But, after the game, Drico was saying I had to step in there. And I talked to Les Kiss (Ireland defence coach) and he said I did the right thing.

"They're the people who really count and they said I made the right decision," he insisted.

In 'Rock, they still see Fitzgerald as the most likely successor to another beloved former pupil of theirs as Ireland's outside centre. It is a view supported by Eddie O'Sullivan. But Brian O'Driscoll still has miles to travel in his representative career and, for now, the ambition for Luke must be more modest.

At just 23, he has time on his side to recapture the impetus taken from him by that knee injury in '09 and he admitted recently in his Evening Herald column that impatience probably affected his performances in this Six Nations.

"Perhaps I wasn't being fair to myself with all the expectations I put upon myself, considering all the injury setbacks I've had in the last 18 months," he wrote.

His supporters still marvel at the almost balletic athleticism of Fitzgerald. They see it as just a matter of time before he is back playing rugby in that calm, imperious way that once signposted him so clearly for stardom.

Gough, for one, is in little doubt that the extraordinary kid he saw a decade ago on that mucky front field in Blackrock, has not disappeared.

"The injuries have taken their toll on his confidence," he says. "He's out to prove himself too quickly and trying too hard. If I was to advise Luke, I'd just say: 'Luke relax, enjoy your game, stop trying to prove yourself too much. Just play the game and be yourself'."

Irish Independent

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