Fortunes turning full circle for Luke Fitzgerald
Injury-plagued Luke Fitzgerald was heading for scrapheap until Joe Schmidt's faith saved him – now he's close to brilliant best again, writes David Kelly
On a sparkling, sun-dappled spring morning last March, when it seemed as if there were only clouds in Luke Fitzgerald's world, the then-Leinster coach Joe Schmidt sat down in the player's house and plotted a future.
A future which not only had to encompass a difficult past – but also, to some extent at least, attempt to temporarily discard it.
With his knee freshly banjaxed for a scarcely credible third time, Fitzgerald's stock, even at just 26, was dwindling – the IRFU bean counters had chucked his new contract into the bargain bin.
There was some talk of Munster – he was enthused by the set-up and encouraged by a meeting with Rob Penney, as well as his Irish friends Keith Earls and Paul O'Connell.
But if there was any love floating about the place, it wasn't giving him as warm an embrace as he received when Schmidt knocked on his front door.
Schmidt couldn't offer him guarantees – but he did tender his faith. It was a credible currency for Fitzgerald to buy into. Now, more than six months on from a summit that pointed Fitzgerald towards a reasonably brighter future, the 26-year-old is still mindful of that history. It's just that now he has a better future to anticipate.
When he sprung into action for cameos of bountiful intent in the November series, it was indicative that he did so beneath the burgeoning influence of Schmidt, one of the few senior figures within the Irish rugby hierarchy who constantly invested faith in him.
Schmidt didn't save Fitzgerald's career; only the player himself could manage that. After all, when Schmidt moved on, Fitzgerald could easily have followed him out the door.
That he didn't, though, owes much to Schmidt's endeavour to encourage Fitzgerald to believe that, beyond the clouds, there was a silver lining.
That faith cannot be ignored as a vital factor in fuelling the self-belief of someone whose mental strength had been so nearly crippled by recurrent physical frailty.
And so, where once premature retirement or, later, an unwilling departure from his beloved Leinster seemed more probable outcomes, Luke Fitzgerald's world has now turned full circle.
He is fighting fit, destined to reignite a wonderful career so shockingly stymied by injury and, so it seems to many close to him, primed to establish himself as the leading contender to succeed Brian O'Driscoll in the No 13 jersey for club and country.
"Yeah, potentially," concurs Leinster coach Matt O'Connor, although he offers a minor caveat. "Brian's there this weekend and for the rest of the season, but Luke is certainly a guy who has got the skills to play there. And he'll certainly get an opportunity to play there this season I'm sure.
"The squad is important and filling the hole that the team needs at different stages is part of that responsibility when you've got a skill-set as vast as Luke's.
"So the specialisation isn't an issue for him or for us at the moment but he's certainly got the potential to play 13, and moving forward he might find himself there for sure."
Fitzgerald is just happy to be playing rugby – and doing so in both blue and green jumpers. His neck complaints a couple of seasons back hinted at a deeper danger to his career; a reluctance from employers to fully brief on the issue hinted that they too were deeply worried. Or, worse, that they didn't have a clue what was up.
After one too many abortive comebacks, he now has a constant reminder literally attached to him – the six screws, two plates and two wedges which were required to separate the vertebrae in his neck.
That and the three knee operations – the final one after that Six Nations calamity in Rome last March – could have felled lesser men, particularly those who had enjoyed a bounty of early career successes, from Lions tours to Heineken Cups, Grand Slams to numerous individual accolades.
Contract negotiations have become dirty words in Irish rugby circles – few regular Joes fret about the nuances of highly-paid pros bickering about the amount of zeros on their bottom line.
For Fitzgerald, it was a different ball game entirely when he first came up for renewal two seasons ago. Those close to him recall his feeling of being cut adrift, cast aside on the scrapheap. Nothing personal, just business.
Having to endure the same process earlier this year – he is now, at least, on Leinster's books until the end of 2015 – didn't replicate the eye-opening revelation of the first time around. But it did remind him of the feeling of isolation.
At least he has good people surrounding him. Starting with his parents, both former sportspeople, dad Des propped for Ireland; sports psychologist Enda McNulty remains a close confidant, and enrolling in a business studies course for two days a week also encouraged him to adopt a kaleidoscopic view to a life that had, since his stellar schoolboy days, been viewed through only one prism.
All the while, he became Leinster rehab coach Stephen Smith's most loyal colleague, faithfully battling from ailment to ailment; any time his body failed him, his mind would grow stronger.
He never felt he would play in the recent November internationals; that he did reflected that strength of belief.
His enduring lesson from the agonising All Blacks defeat was Richie McCaw's own sense of destiny that his side's mental capacity to conquer would be untrammelled. At times, his mind was the strongest tool available to him.
"It's obviously very impressive," says Rob Kearney admiringly of his colleague's resourcefulness.
"Luke has had a tough time with injury. He has struggled and when you have such a tough time that brings a lot of mental challenges. More so, to overcome those mental challenges as opposed to the physical ones is a real sign of a positive character.
"We all know the calibre of player he is, and what he offers as a player and as a person off the field too, to Leinster Rugby. It's hugely encouraging how well he's come back and he's going to contribute a huge amount over the next few weeks."
O'Connor has perspective on Fitzgerald's remarkable story from either side of the fence.
"Luke's talent is unquestionable. As a young player he demonstrated going on that Lions tour in '09 as a young guy, the talent that he has got.
"He has been a little bit unlucky and stop-start with his career due to injury but he's a very, very dangerous player for us, a real threat.
"It's certainly our intention to give him as many opportunities with the ball at the weekend as we can."
That is why Schmidt was so determined to secure Fitzgerald's signature last March at a time when even some of his most loyal devotees were skipping town.
Fitzgerald himself believes he can become an even better player than the gilded talent that soared so wonderfully at the turn of the decade; it is an ideal shared by his national coach, too.
Free from physical turmoil, Fitzgerald's immense mental strength now assures him that even if clouds do appear on his horizon, the rain will soon wash them away.