Luke Fitzgerald: 'The onus is on the players - we have to perform'
Leinster star Fitzgerald backs O'Connor game-plan and insists that it's up to those on the pitch to deliver against hot favourites Toulon
Published 17/04/2015 | 02:30
If Leinster are to overcome their most forbidding challenge of a fitful campaign, they must first seek to overcome their own shortcomings.
Regardless of the needful loyalty and siege mentality manfully being displayed from within, the view from outside is of a team palpably lacking in a confidence.
That lack of confidence was in evidence again last weekend in Newport when a team of championship pedigree tossed away a winning position.
It is one thing to be gripped by a searing lack of confidence from the start; quite another for it to strike when a team is seemingly on the brink of rediscovering its once famed imperiousness.
So it was against Wasps, despite ultimately qualifying for the Champions Cup knockout stages last January; then again, when they played Bath and, ten points ahead at half-time, a fear suddenly restrained them at precisely the point where they should have kicked for home.
Crucial moments like these in the past defined a great Leinster championship side; now they unmask a collective in turmoil.
There seems to be an abandonment of trust; some will blame the coach, Matt O'Connor, though the squad faithfully and repeatedly deny it. Perhaps, then, the answer lies within each one of the players.
"The reason why guys have an awful lot of confidence in Matt is because when you see him day to day, the level of detail is phenomenal," says Luke Fitzgerald, bravely attempting to navigate some reasoning amidst the torrent of confusion.
"In terms of the game-plan, there is a huge amount of confidence there because in different parts of different games, like the first half in Wasps, it worked really well.
"The onus is on the players. We have gone into our shells a little bit at certain points, like that second half in Wasps. We're probably not winning those big moments in games.
"Big games are turned on moments like that. You've got to win those. There are key moments.
"You think of a breakdown down the left-hand side in the first half. We blow it right on their line. Then they go down and put pressure on us for 20 minutes, rather than us scoring a try that probably should have been a try only for our own mistake.
"Different moments like that come to my mind and the reason we have confidence in it is because in different parts of the game that we get it right, we've been cutting teams apart."
The same trend was evident, even in victory, against Bath. A win should have been secured long before that fateful last-minute penalty decision that, had it swung another way, would have rendered this conversation redundant.
A repeat would be fatal against the ruthless, remorseless Toulon.
"We did touch on that period in the Bath game when we shut down a little bit," Fitzgerald agrees. "There were times when we were in the opposition half and we didn't back ourselves to hold on to the ball while we were looking to put pressure on them.
"We should back ourselves to hang on to the ball, get a penalty or break them down.
"So that's one of the things we're trying to change for this weekend.
"When we talk about our performances, there's an awful lot left in us. If you talk about mindset, we have to change it and leave it all out there.
"At this stage, every game is a final. We can't leave anything out there. Given the way the season has gone, especially in the league, this is do or die for us."
An unscheduled team meeting this week was either a resounding rallying call by their captain, Jamie Heaslip, as an effort to rediscover themselves or else a desperate attempt for the group to reassert their own authority.
It is unlikely we will ever find out, lest Leinster strive to reproduce their fighting words with tremendous deeds on the field; certainly, it was, as Fitzgerald at least confirms, an unprecedented occurrence.
"Jamie always reiterates very similar themes and he's always a talisman for us and has been for a long time," he relates, tentatively lifting the lid on what will motivate the team in this defining six-day period when two titles could rise, or fall, depending on their results.
"He was reiterating what's important in terms of personal responsibility to your role in the team. Jamie is really big on that. Another thing that was mentioned is this being the be all and end all for our season really.
"He was just telling us to make sure that we don't leave any stone unturned in terms of rest, recuperation, recovery, preparation, all those kind of things."
There was little anger amidst the introspection, no matter how people may think Leinster look in the mirror and only see reflected a worrying predicament.
"Everyone in the squad was really disappointed with Sunday, to lose in the way that we did, to probably fall apart in the last 15 minutes of that game," Fitzgerald says, before suggesting the future
"There was no real focus on that. Anyone who knows Jamie well, his best traits are how calm he is in every scenario whether you're in the middle of an absolute dogfight or not.
"He is unbelievably calm and pragmatic in every scenario. A guy like him wouldn't really be roaring and shouting, throwing cups or kicking doors. It's not his style."
What Leinster need is substance. Fitzgerald's belief that a change in mindset can emanate from the squad's soul-searching will only be revealed inside the white lines
"I would say this game will be a far better indicator of what the squad is about and what the game-plan is about," adds Fitzgerald, who says he has received nothing but good tidings from Leinster fans.
"If we don't perform and have confidence and execute the game-plan this week, it's a disaster for us."
Leinster's biggest battle promises to be with themselves.
Luke Fitzgerald was speaking at the launch of Re.Store - a dynamic new Irish food, coffee and convenience concept, which has joined forces with Ireland's leading fuel retailer, Topaz, to revolutionise the forecourt and convenience outlet experience.