Luke Fitzgerald - Unrivalled talent and courage derailed by endless injuries
Published 29/06/2016 | 02:30
A knot of apprehension may have tightened in Luke Fitzgerald's throat as he pondered his reflection in the mirror for the last time as a professional rugby player.
He is about to confirm his retirement by pressing a button on a laptop; a laughably simplistic exercise of a fingertip to usher an end to the thousands of hours pushing every sinew and muscle of his body to barely credible excess.
But as his reflection stares back, that same finger might contemplate the scar that traces an ineradicable diagram of the neck surgery that at once prolonged his career and ensured it could never last as long as he wished.
As the retirement email fizzes down the e-highway towards his Leinster bosses, he can indeed reflect that this is literally a cut-throat industry.
The neck injury sustained in the Pro12 final in a tackle from Connacht's AJ MacGinty was, ultimately, the final, fateful blow of a career spent dodging a series of blows only this brutal sport can deliver.
Instead of wallowing in rueful reflection at what seems to some the cruel brevity of the meteoric showering of his gifts - he is just 28 - the wonder is that we managed to exult in bearing witness to the glorious skill and dexterity of the gifted Dubliner for as long as we did.
And that he himself managed to accumulate the maximum from those too rare cloudless days when his body allowed him to perform, even if he was consistently dogged by the realisation that he would never be able to do as 100pc of his capacity.
He skipped into the Leinster Academy just weeks after his Leaving Cert, already established as a star of the schools game with Blackrock College, with whom he won two Senior Cups to add to a Junior Cup.
He played a year young for the Irish Schools side, and won a first senior international cap as a 19-year-old.
While still at school, sports psychologist and former Armagh All-Ireland winning full-back Enda McNulty had asked the precocious teenager to detail his goals.
The response was as unequivocal as it was ambitious: he wanted to play for the Lions, win over 100 caps for Ireland and over 200 with Leinster.
In bald statistical terms, he only achieved one of the three; in real terms, his tilting at windmills accrued so much more than perhaps even he may have dreamed.
Just over two years later, he was an ever-present as Ireland won their first Grand Slam in 61 years, became a pivotal selection as a Test player for the Lions in South Africa, as well as helping Leinster earn their breakthrough Heineken Cup.
He was just 21. Most players can only dream of such bounties in a lifetime.
Yet Fitzgerald would spend much of his career seeking to overcome obstacles rather than being waylaid by them.
He ruptured three separate ligament groups in one knee but still stood up to next challenge.
The first of those, sustained in that otherwise glittering 2009 year, against Australia, offered an all-too premature glimpse of an ending just as he was beginning.
"I was upset because I thought it might be the end," he told us.
He also suffered glute and groin and hip problems of varying severity but never bowed his head in disappointment.
Although at times he wanted to. Two years ago, he told us: "Honestly there was a period there when I said, 'I can't do this anymore'."
We got used to hearing the most intimate details about surgical manoeuvres, from Enda King and Ray Moran to Ashley Poynton and Gerry McEntee.
Words like bicep femoris and poplitieus tripped from his tongue with ease; so unusual was his '09 knee op, Moran had to fly to Abu Dhabi to consult with a specialist there.
The Leinster and Ireland doctor, Arthur Tanner, had to develop a uniquely individual rehab programme; in 20 years as a practitioner, he had simply never come across such an injury before.
A teetotaller, Fitzgerald's slavish commitment owed much to his family values; father Des - a prop who won the same number of his Irish caps (34) as his son - and mother Andrea, a netball player from whom Luke inherited his wonderful footwork, as well as supportive siblings, provided light in the "rough times" he detailed in his retirement statement.
His initial neck problems were the most severe; to amend bulging discs, he needed a double fusion, essentially involving the insertion of six screws, two plates and two wedges. And still he played on, as if defiantly charged by a bionic, other-worldly force.
It seemed as if entire swathes of his career were being played out in hospital wards; when we spoke a week ahead of the 2014 Six Nations, he joked. "They don't get me to do talks about rugby any more, just injuries!"
Less than 48 hours later, injury would scratch him from another campaign. But still he doggedly chafed at defeat, even as the IRFU threatened to quietly extinguish him from their books.
He kept on dancing. Those lung-busting runs from the depths, pirouetting around dizzied tacklers and an under-rated reputation as the best tackler in the business defined both his outlandish skill-set and illimitable bravery.
He can walk away with head held high, knowing there will be no mental scars to jostle with his physical wounds. And celebrate all that he achieved, rather that which he did not.
Born: 13 September 1987.
Height: 1.83m (6")
Weight: 92kg (14st 8lb)
Club: Blackrock College RFC
Honours: SCT (2), JCT.
Leinster Caps: 154 (32 tries)
Leinster Debut: 8 September 2006 v Edinburgh, Murrayfield
Honours: Magners League 2008, 2013, 2014, Heineken Cup, 2009 and 2011. Challenge Cup 2013.
Ireland Caps: 34 (4 tries)
Ireland Debut: 26 November 2006 v Pacific Islands, Lansdowne Road Honours: Grand Slam, 2009, Championship, 2015.
British & Irish Lions Caps: 1 (27 June 2009 v South Africa)