Thursday 20 July 2017

Fitzgerald sees light at end of World Cup tunnel

Leinster's Luke Fitzgerald speaks to reporters in Clonskeagh ahead of the province’s Pro 12 clash against Treviso on Satu
Leinster's Luke Fitzgerald speaks to reporters in Clonskeagh ahead of the province’s Pro 12 clash against Treviso on Satu
David Kelly

David Kelly

Sometimes the strongest sporting instinct is the easiest to ignore.

For too long last summer, Luke Fitzgerald shunned the comfort zone in his personal battle to shrug off injury, poor form and the frustrations of being shunted around unfeelingly in an Ireland jersey.

Instead of wallowing in the habitual and building from there, he gambled outrageously with his outstanding natural ability. More often than not, he lost.

Poor passing, poor running and simple mistakes pockmarked his attempts to breach Declan Kidney's World Cup squad. And so he was left at home, one of Ireland's most naturally gifted talents now fated to miss his second successive World Cup.

"I suppose when I didn't get on till the 60th minute against France, I kind of had a bit of an inkling," he says with a smile when asked to unfurl his heartache. "I might not seem that bright to you guys, but I'm not that dim.

"Even then I came on against France and thought I did quite well, so I was a little bit disappointed all the same.


"You know, when you have a little bit of hope and there was lot of people saying to me afterwards when I came in 'Jeez you're in now, you're on the plane there' and I was saying 'Jeez I don't know, I can't see why he wouldn't put me on before.' So, you're kind of figuring things out. It was very touch and go."

The briefest and cruellest of chats with Kidney rudely disabused him of any confidence he may have embraced.

"We had a really, really short conversation, if I am being honest about it," recalls the 24-year-old. "I wished Declan the best of luck. I don't know whether he wanted to have a long conversation about it, but I wasn't too interested in that. I mean what else do you say?"

The wounds were clearly raw for some time, as he has not spoken publicly since being axed from the squad, and he heartily threw himself into a Leinster pre-season friendly just days after his culling.

"You know, there is the initial disappointment, but I suppose I would pride myself on being one of those people who bounces back pretty well from setbacks," he admits. "I think that is a crucial thing, whether it be in rugby or just in general life.

"I took a little bit of time with it and I suppose it was very important for me to come back in here and have a very supportive coaching staff and players.

"The guys were great about it and there was a little bit of sympathy. But at the same time there was very much the kind of approach of, 'let's get on with things now'.

"Joe was great and I asked if I could be included for the pre-season game and he said, 'Yeah, get in there, get involved.' The guys in here have been great since then."

While his palpable dip in confidence last season stemmed from an uncertain return from lengthy injury, Kidney's persistence with the two-time Heineken Cup winner at full-back clearly didn't help matters.

The more desperately Fitzgerald tried to play himself into form, the more his game deteriorated. Even when he finished strongly for Leinster in their double trophy tilt, the bad smell lingered.

"I definitely had that rough period, but I was playing quite well at the end of last season. In the semi-final and the two finals I had good games, so I was a little disappointed when people said I wasn't playing well."

Notwithstanding these perceptions, it was quite noticeable witnessing Fitzgerald for the first time in the flesh last Sunday just how demonstrative he was in each of his actions; it is as if he has stripped himself bare and allowed an extra half a second to think on the ball, without letting his brain radically outpace his hands.

"I suppose it was something I was very conscious of, during that period, when I had a bit of a rough patch during the Six Nations and for a few games afterwards," he agrees.

"I definitely wasn't playing well and I was very conscious of a lot of things in my game I was probably rushing.

"I don't know. It is something I try to do... try and slow down the thought processes I am going through. 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.

"There is that saying, great players do the simple things exceptionally well. When going through that tough patch, you look back on what you were doing well -- I'm not saying I was a great player, but when I was playing well I was doing the simple things quite well. I think I am doing that at the moment."

Four years seems like an eternity away; between his 2007 and 2011 World Cup rejections, Fitzgerald managed to squirrel away a Celtic League title, two Heineken Cups and a Grand Slam.

Even at such a young age, though, it seems incongruous that a World Cup has yet to feature on his otherwise immaculate CV.

"It's a great question. It's something I was very conscious of the last time when I was playing very well before the 2007 World Cup.

"I was very young, but I was playing quite well at the time.

"I was actually really disappointed to not be included in that. Look, there's being a couple of disappointments along the way, but the key thing for me is how you bounce back from these things.

"That's something I'm really focused on. There's an awful lot left to achieve and I'm still a young guy, so without looking too far ahead, I do hope to be included in at least one, you know?"

He knows he just has to trust his instincts.

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