'I thought it was the end'
Fitzgerald back to his best after injury that left career in balance
Published 06/11/2010 | 05:00
The Irish kitman, the inestimable Paddy O'Reilly, whose influence far transcends his players' supplication for tea and extra Jaffa Cakes, issues a thought for the day every morning during the Irish camp.
One from this week would have been appreciated by Luke Fitzgerald in particular. "Do not wait for your ship to come in. Swim out to it."
This time last year, the prodigiously talented Leinster back writhed in agony on the Croke Park turf, after the lateral collateral ligament of his left knee snapped in a fruitless attempt to catch the elusive Australian enigma Quade Cooper in the 20-20 draw.
For the first fortnight after suffering an injury more common amongst the NFL fraternity than rugby players, Fitzgerald actually forced himself to confront a future without professional sport at his life's core.
When Ray Moran from the Santry Sports Clinic -- the man they call 'The Iceman' in Leinster -- coolly related to the player just how serious his injury was, Fitzgerald, whose career path had hitherto barely encountered even a pebble-shaped obstacle, privately despaired.
"When he told me how significant an injury it was there were tears shed," he confesses. "I wouldn't be ashamed of that. I was really upset, I thought it might be the end.
"But I just gathered myself and realised it wasn't the end of the world, there are people in far worse situations. My family really gathered around me. I had to move home for a few months, which was actually kind of nice. Everyone really looked after me.
"I have three sisters who were fantastic. It was a great support structure. I was very worried at the start, but it's great to be back now."
Back and firing on every cylinder, crucially. Such was the extent of Fitzgerald's injury, Moran was forced to consult a colleague in Abu Dhabi, but everything is back in working order -- the power, the pace and the most pivotal quality, his dancing lateral movement.
"I've got to say he did an unbelievable job on it. I've literally had no hiccups throughout the whole rehab period ever since I've been back. Everything came back really quickly, all the power, all the movement and balance on it.
"It was a really great job. In fairness to the boys at Leinster there wouldn't have been any set rehab programme in place for this; Arthur Tanner, our doctor, said he had never seen one in 20 years working as a doctor.
"Funnily enough -- well, not funnily -- Kevin McLaughlin did it four or five months later. I think he was lucky that there was something in place that I had done, but with me the boys kind of had to feel their way about it a bit and I think they did a great job.
"I knew straight away, I could feel it. It's the outside line on your leg, on the outside of your quad, part of your hamstring, it was gone. That was the only part I noticed; I didn't know any part of my knee was gone. I was like, 'That's gone, that line'. That's how I knew it was wrong. It just shot up my leg.
"The lads asked me, 'How do you feel?' And I was like, 'Er, I can't quite feel that bit of my leg that used to be there'. They tried to get me to stand up but I was like, 'I can't do it'."
Perspective permeated his recovery. He seems to have matured into an even more rounded individual, more comfortable in his skin, than at any time before.
"You realise how fickle sport is and how quickly it can all change for you," he says. "That was in literally 30 seconds, well the incident itself was only two seconds, but it changed the whole course of that year for me, I had no involvement. So you really get to appreciate it."