No regrets as Fitzgerald looks to the future
Recently retired winger refuses to blame career-ending injuries on rare fast-tracking into pro game straight from school
Published 06/07/2016 | 02:30
There was a certain irony to the fact that in his final game as a professional rugby player, Luke Fitzgerald got through the entire 80 minutes, having torn his medial ligament as well as suffering a serious neck injury that would force him into early retirement.
For a career that promised so much, Fitzgerald endured more than his fair share of injuries, and deep down, one wonders if he knew this day would come sooner rather than later.
A niggling neck injury required surgery in May 2012 but the one he suffered in the Pro12 final defeat to Connacht in May immediately felt different. He knew this one could be the final straw.
From the outside looking in, retiring at just 28 may seem like a deeply troubling event to come to terms with but the former Blackrock College student has built up enough mental strength over the years to allow him to cope with this major life change.
"I didn't really feel too emotional about it," he admits. "I got the scan the day after the Pro12 final, I met the surgeon Ashley Poynton a few days later. I had previous dealings with him and he's excellent, the best in the country.
"The radiographer had flagged it as a concern and once Ashley saw it, he said, 'Look, I just don't think you can play any more'.
"Given my history with Ashley, the last time I had an injury in that area he was happy for me to play again once I got the surgery, but he wasn't comfortable with this one and it made my decision easier once a guy you trust says, 'This time around nothing can be done, I can't clear you to play'.
"I did it about 28 minutes into the game. Having had neck trouble before I knew it was a little different.
"I said to the guys (medics) when they came on, 'this feels different. It's never been this painful before and it's in a different area'.
"I kind of had a feeling about it because I played the rest of the game without any feeling in my left arm really. I tore a medial (ligament) in the first ten minutes as well.
"I was kind of hobbling along and I had one arm and I was thinking, 'this isn't great. This isn't too much fun'. I had a bad feeling about that.
"When I went in for the scan, I had calmed down. I don't know why I wasn't expecting bad news, having felt that way during the match and after.
"I will probably have to go in at some stage, Leo (Cullen) was saying, to tell the lads about it. I told the lads I'm close to it just before it came out.
"I will probably have to go in. That might be emotional when you see the guys for the last time."
Fitzgerald's career trajectory is a rarity in that he secured a professional contract straight from school on the back of his sparkling performances in the Leinster Senior Cup.
For some, Fitzgerald's career will be a cautionary tale on why it is important to tread carefully when developing young players but he doesn't have any regrets about taking up Michael Cheika's offer of a professional contract at just 18.
Joe Schmidt has ignored the mass calls for Garry Ringrose to be capped, and although the young centre is likely to feature for the first time against Canada in November, there has never been any sense that he will be rushed.
Ireland U-20s captain James Ryan as well as the likes of Andrew Porter and Max Deegan, who was crowned Player of the Tournament at last month's U-20 World Cup, will join the Leinster Academy this summer.
For Fitzgerald though, the chance to skip the Academy programme and go straight into the professional ranks was too good an opportunity to turn down.
"When I came out of school I was asked by Cheika if I wanted to train with the senior guys or the guys in the academy," he recalls.
"I said, 'well Gordon D'Arcy, Shane Horgan, Denis Hickie and Drico are up there. Felipe Contepomi as well, so I think I will train with them!'"
"I never played an AIL game, I never even played an 'A' game for Leinster. I went straight into the senior team.
"I probably got a bit unlucky, brought some of it upon myself in the initial couple of years in that if you look at how professional the set-up is now, you train so much better, it is a much more professional set-up, much more streamlined, people know way more.
"I would have been really ready for training. I was way stronger, more powerful and way more balanced than a lot of guys coming out of school. And would have had good principles coming from my dad.
"I would have had a bit of access to Dave Fagan, who trains the sub-Academy now, from an early age and a friend of mine who was in training with him. So I would have been ahead of the posse."
So when it comes to it, would Fitzgerald encourage young players to follow his path or take their time and develop through the system?
"You look at someone like Porter and he is in there squatting 350 kilos in the gym," he says. "How can you tell a fella like that you are not strong enough to get in the game?
"With the physicality of the game and how athletes are it is probably no harm to hold them back a year or two but you get such accelerated learning when you are exposed to training and playing with the guys at the top level.
"It's sink or swim there and if guys can play and compete physically at that age it is hard to say no.
"How do you tell guys like Cian Healy or Sean O'Brien who are coming out of school and marmalising 30-year olds in contact that they can't play?"
Walking away from the sport that has given him so much was never going to be easy but being physically able to do so will make the next step easier as Fitzgerald begins a new chapter of his life.