Luke Fitzgerald: I'm happy with what I achieved but it was the least I expected
As the Pro 12 final approached the half-hour mark, and Leinster clamoured to stay apace with a rampant Connacht side, Luke Fitzgerald did his utmost to ignore the incredible pain engulfing his neck but, deep within, he knew rugby’s grim reaper was visiting with him.
Given his long and luckless acquaintance with injury, Fitzgerald, even in such a crucible, was adequately versed in physical trauma to realise that this latest impact, a tackle with Connacht’s AJ MacGinty, was the one to end his career, even if he wasn’t fully prepared to admit as much.
In fact, 20 minutes previously, he tore his medial ligament, but neither blight compelled him to signal the bench to ready a replacement.
Not when his beloved Leinster were vying for silverware. For him, such a concession was unacceptable. It wasn’t until hearing the surgeon’s prognosis in the coming days that the 28-year-old accepted his fate.
“For it to end the way it did, an innocuous enough tackle where I got tackled by one guy and fell into another guy’s hip and that’s it. I played on for a bit more, but I had a feeling it was pretty bad. Searing pain at the time and I knew it was different.”
“You could see I was throwing a couple of wobbly passes because I was throwing with one hand. Couldn’t figure out what was wrong; I don’t know why your mind convinces you it’s something different, it took until I saw the surgeon, and once he said you can’t play, then I knew it was an easy decision to make. I just followed doctor’s orders.
“I didn’t say it right there and then. It takes a bit of time to let it marinate a bit, let it sit with you and get comfortable with it. It did make it easier that it was taken out of my hands to a certain extent. It’s still disappointing to end it there, especially when you feel you’ve more to give.”
For those who have tracked Fitzgerald since he graduated to the professional ranks straight out of Blackrock College as a precocious teen, news of his retirement would hardly have come as a shot out of the blue.
Since late 2009, the Dublin native was plagued with a litany of neck, knee, glute, groin and hip injuries.
Having looked back to his best during a try-scoring cameo in the World Cup quarter final defeat to Argentina, and at first centre for Leinster thereafter, it seemed, perhaps, that those countless days of rehabbing and doctor’s visits were at an end.
However, he was struck down again during an Irish open training session with a knee injury and missed the Six Nations.
Undeterred, he battled back to fitness for the umpteenth time, but that 20-10 defeat at the hands of Connacht was the denouement of a journey that, despite all the roadblocks, consistently featured his singular gifts.
While it would be all too easy to lament the cruel conclusion of Fitzgerald’s athletic endeavours, and ponder on what might have been if the sporting gods had not so persistently meddled with his health , it would be far more constructive to consider all he achieved despite the unremitting adversity.
He won 34 caps for Ireland, 154 for Leinster, a Grand Slam, a Six Nations title, three Heineken Cups, three Pro 12 titles and a Challenge Cup. Moreover, aged 21, he was a Test Lion against South Africa in 2009.
There is little regrettable in that role of honours. However, as a brash youngster, it was the least Fitzgerald expected to achieve, though perhaps that’s a mark of the man. An unrelenting desire to succeed, to keep coming back for more in the face of overwhelming odds.
“When I look back, I realise it was very successful, but coming out of school at 18 I had incredibly high (expectations). I would have expected that to be a middle ground.
“Looking back, I’m definitely happy with the honours list. I was able to be part of a lot of successful teams and I was able to fulfill my potential to a certain extent.
“Injuries held me back at certain points and maybe I’ll never know how good I could have been, but I was pretty good and I feel pretty good about moving on to the next challenge.”