Fitzgerald sees hope for future in Toulon loss
Published 24/04/2015 | 02:30
The dust has barely settled on the fiv-point loss to Toulon in the semi-final of the Champions Cup but Leinster winger Luke Fitzgerald is already thinking of next year.
Not so much for him personally but for the group, and in particular the younger players.
"This year we have seen some great stuff from the likes of Jordi Murphy, Tadhg Furlong, Jack Conan, Marty Moore and Jack McGrath. These lads have taken such strides in the last 18 months or so," says Fitzgerald.
"Last year was a first ever knockout European game for some of them, this year a first campaign and then a first semi-final.
"They will learn massively from those campaigns and yet they are only 22, 23, 24 years of age, their best rugby ahead of them.
"The hurt that we feel now, though, has to act as a spur and as a motivation for next year. If we don't learn from that and if we don't take this pain with us, then the performance and driving them as close as we did will count for very little."
And they did drive them close.
"Yeah we did. I suppose they couldn't beat us over 80 minutes of rugby and we had chances to win it. But then they were clinical in extra-time and edged it there. Yeah we did drive them close. But then again we knew that we would," he adds.
"We had confidence in the plan that we had agreed on to get us over the line, belief in our coaches, in ourselves to get the job done. But unfortunately it is Toulon that go to London next weekend."
Is it the one that got away?
"Maybe. It was very disappointing but at the same time I'm very proud of the effort. As a squad I think we've come together really well over the last three weeks or so as we've been able to focus 100pc on Leinster," he explains.
"The conditions were atrocious so it was difficult to play but I still think we managed the game well and that our discipline and our defence against a team like that was superb.
"At that stage of a competition you'd back yourself on that stuff with so much on the line - that if a performance were to come together it would surely come together for a European semi-final."
Even against a Toulon side chasing a third European title in a row?
"True and we absolutely respected them, their players and what they have achieved but we also backed ourselves. They are a tough team to play against and some teams can be overawed by the names and that, but I didn't think that happened to us," says Fitzgerald.
"We went out there to win. Ultimately it took them 100 minutes to get over the line against us and we can take huge heart from that going into next year."
Jamie Heaslip referenced the "white noise" outside the camp and the talk of pressure and poor performances and the underdogs tag. It's not often that tag is applied to this Leinster team.
"Look, we genuinely only focused on ourselves. What others were saying was irrelevant. But you couldn't escape it either. We knew we were going in there and that nobody was giving us a chance but at the same time, we gave ourselves every chance and that's all that matters," says Fitzgerald.
"That view isn't a million miles wide of the mark either. It was framed off the back of poor performances our end but there are so many factors that go into a performance and we just didn't click for a variety of reasons consistently over the season.
"But we felt that a couple of things were coming together nicely for us. The coaches had some good creative ideas, we were getting minutes of the training pitch together and being under the radar is no bad thing either I suppose. But favourites or otherwise isn't a major part of our mindset."
You have to lose one to win one. Just ask them in Munster. Just ask the senior players at Leinster. The bad days make the good all the sweeter.
"That's true and this is a new group really. New coaching set up as of last season, lads retiring, lads stepping up. Yes we won the Pro12 last year which was great but I think this year with the dynamic of Leo and Brian being gone as players it really is a new departure for us and for the club," says Fitzgerald.
"So there's probably a bit to prove yet as a group. The hunger is there. The desire is there. Sometimes it takes - and Brian and Leo used to talk about it a fair bit - it takes the bad days.
"The lads would often say having gone through their careers and not having achieved much, they only realised when they achieved something how much is actually at stake and what it costs to get to that level and to win those medals.
"But I think we are very lucky in that the crop that are coming up are very motivated. It will take time, even though you'd hope that they would learn quickly from the hurt this year and bring that forward into next year."
That is then. Ulster is now. A sold-out Kingspan Stadium awaits them. Live on TV. All eyes are on this one.
"They will look at it as a great opportunity to get rid of us once and for all," says Fitzgerald of Ulster.
"The way the table is stacked, if we were to sneak into the top four, then you'd be facing the team in first or second so with us now being nearly at full strength and a bit of continuity developing, it's a chance to just end the debate about the top four once and for all.
"It's up to us to keep it going for another week or two at least."
And he'd hope to be a part of that debate.
"I'm in a good place I feel. There are always one or two things in any game that you would have liked to have gone better but I've had a nice run of games now and whether we have three, four or five games left with Leinster, I'd like to think I'll be in a good spot to put my hand up for World Cup selection.
"It won't be easy. You look at the lads competing for those places on the plane - and we'll be playing some of them this week like Craig Gilroy, the competition is intense.
"But I'm fit, enjoying my rugby and can't wait for the game. The interpros bring out the best in me."