Fitzgerald rediscovering mojo as he wings his way into Six Nations frame
Published 08/12/2011 | 05:00
And so the revival of Luke Fitzgerald continues apace. For anyone who has been eagerly awaiting the return to form of one of Ireland's most naturally gifted rugby footballers, the bad news is that you may have already missed the greener shoots of his latest rehabilitation.
The good news is that this energising healing is destined to continue on Saturday, when Heineken Cup champions Leinster descend upon the banks of the River Avon, where they will attempt to clinically butcher Bath's dwindling European ambition.
Typical of someone who has spent much of his adult life amidst the burning flashbulbs of media hype and burdensome expectation, Fitzgerald managed to strive so energetically well away from the spotlight earlier this season.
That he redoubled himself to re-discover his form so convincingly was a piercing response to those who had led the clarion calls for his exclusion from Ireland's World Cup squad.
But, performing so admirably while the rest of the world had their eyes transfixed upon the other side of the hemisphere was perhaps also a tad poignant.
For it left one wondering, wouldn't Ireland have been better served to house his liberal, shackle-free spirit within their World Cup ranks, rather than exclude it altogether?
But then this is the enigma that Fitzgerald's career has now become: rated highly enough to start a defining Test in a Lions series but doubted with sufficient force to justify his exclusion from not one, but two 30-man World Cup squads.
Aged 24, Fitzgerald has now appeared in 24 Tests -- if one includes his Lions bow in Pretoria -- and yet some coaches and supporters alike remain unconvinced that he has what it takes to firmly nail down a starting berth for Declan Kidney's Ireland.
Frustratingly for the player and his cheerleaders on the sidelines, he arguably remains restricted by the very versatility that ought to liberate him.
During last season's Six Nations, Fitzgerald had seemingly completed a recovery from serious injury but, whatever about his physical well-being, his mental preparedness was lacking as he struggled to fill in for the injured duo Rob Kearney and Geordan Murphy at full-back.
Whether it was over-running, poor passing or woeful kicking, Fitzgerald was wallowing in quicksand with every minute spent at full-back; bizarrely, Kidney persisted with him for four games when it was clear to all that he was struggling.
Then, when Kidney eventually made the decision to remove him from the firing line, he excised him completely from the squad; when Keith Earls moved back, Andrew Trimble slotted in on the left wing spot Fitzgerald might have hoped to snaffle.
"If Luke has made any errors they're probably because he's trying too hard and he's been overstretching himself," Kidney said at the time, issuing the first clear warning that Fitzgerald might struggle to make his World Cup plans.
And so, despite some decent runs against France, Earls' similar toils in his quest for form and the understandable desire for Kidney to overlook Tommy Bowe's inactivity in the World Cup warm-up matches, Fitzgerald was edged out as Fergus McFadden nabbed the final versatile backline slot.
The conversation between player and coach was a pointedly brief one; player didn't know if coach wanted to have a longer conversation. Both probably realise that there was little point. Whether Fitzgerald was unfairly treated is now irrelevant. His response to another devastating blow would speak volumes.
Thankfully, he has managed to shrug off this latest setback and shine in Leinster blue. The quandary for the player is that he is doing so in arguably his least favoured of all the back-line positions: the left wing.
With Brian O'Driscoll absent, he may have hoped to shift into midfield but, aside from a brief, admittedly instructive cameo there, he has failed to shift Joe Schmidt's favoured option of Eoin O'Malley. Kidney may now follow Schmidt's lead this spring.
"I would be keen to get time in there," is Fitzgerald's take. "Joe knows that, but I'll do whatever fits the team the most. I've been going well on the wing so Joe probably wants to keep a bit of continuity there."
From the bleachers, it seems that Fitzgerald is bang in form on the wing, and the hope is that he can knuckle down and ensure he remains undroppable from both the Leinster and Ireland sides.
He may still maintain that full-back is his preferred position, although there is an argument that outside-centre suits him better, as he has less time to be tortured by decision-making.
Playing at full-back hasn't seemed to suit a player whose greatest strengths are impromptu execution and probably the best fleet-footed movement in the Irish game, apart from O'Driscoll.
"I am trying to slow down the thought processes I am going through," he said recently in his first interview since being excluded from the World Cup squad.
"On the pitch, I am probably one of those players, I have more time than I think I do at times. It is something I have tried to work on, slowing down the thought process, and it has been working for me so far. One job at a time."
For now, though, his home is on the left wing and it is there he must concentrate on continuing his rehabilitation.
With Earls set to make a tentative return to Munster colours in 10 days' time for the return leg of the Heineken Cup double-header with Scarlets, the Moyross flier could have timed his return to action with pinpoint accuracy ahead of the Six Nations.
It is up to Fitzgerald to ensure that the case for his return to the national set-up is unanswerable.
"There have been a couple of disappointments," he admits, "but the key thing for me is how you bounce back from these things. That's something I'm really focused on."
Without doubt, he has re-found his mojo. And, though he may still be searching for his favoured position, he may have to content himself with the one he already has. His best career move at this time could well be to stay put.