Luke Fitzgerald: 'This is what I am paid to do and if it doesn't go well I am under serious pressure. But I think I am almost there'
Luke Fitzgerald talks exclusively about his recent difficulties and determination to regain top form
LUKE FITZGERALD moved into a new pad in Clonskeagh a little over two months ago. He may be one of Ireland's most high-profile sports figures but anyone hoping for tales of an MTV 'Cribs' style bachelor pad will be disappointed.
True, there is a buzzer-operated electronic gate but the fact it is thigh-high and only five paces from the front door takes away from the P Diddy effect and, while the television screen is preposterously large, it is about the only nod to extravagance inside this nicely appointed townhouse.
Fitzgerald is happily settled there with a couple of close friends, handily located next to Leinster's training bases of UCD and David Lloyd centre in Riverview and a natural location for the club poker nights -- as it was last Tuesday.
"We do it regularly. It's good fun, not a really serious game," says Fitzgerald. "I was shocking the other night, 'dead money' at the table. Leo (Cullen) is a bit of a shark, the best of the lot. He's got the poker face and Jonny Sexton is always top three."
Unfortunately, Fitzgerald's struggles on the poker table mirror his recent rugby woes and his new abode has become something of a bolt-hole over the past couple of months as he strives to rediscover the form that deserted him during the Six Nations and on his return to provincial colours.
It helps having sports psychologist Enda McNulty just around the corner, someone Fitzgerald describes as a "close friend" and regular counsellor, the other major influence being his father, Des, who can relate to the vagaries of international rugby from his days in and out of the Ireland No 3 jersey in the 1980s and 90s.
Nearly four years on from the first of his 20 Ireland caps, you have to remind yourself that Fitzgerald Jnr is still just 23.
Having been groomed for international stardom since his mid-teens at Blackrock College, Fitzgerald exudes an easy maturity that belies his years and has always been at ease with his media duties, unfailingly courteous and happy to talk, careful not to step on any verbal landmines.
He has crammed a fair bit into what is still, in term of years to go, a fledgling career. There has been Heineken Cup and Grand Slam glory, career-threatening injury and Lions highs and lows -- more than enough to fill an autobiography already.
But the last couple of months have been the most unsettling of his life and over the course of an hour-and-a-half's animated review of his career to date Fitzgerald keeps returning to the current slump, driven by a cathartic desire to get things off his chest.
"This last period has definitely been the most challenging period of my career. Definitely.
"The dogs on the street know I am not playing to my potential and I know that better than anyone. But I'm right there, I'm really close.
"This is the first interview I've done in a long time, deliberately. I just had to focus on getting back to where I want to be. My focus is really, really narrow. This is what I am paid to do and if it doesn't go well I am under serious pressure on a lot of different fronts, but I think I am almost there."
The ability has never been in question and there is a mental strength to Fitzgerald that tells you he will enforce the turnaround he craves.
It is a psychological power forged in disappointment and setback and the 2009 Lions tour is a good place to begin examining the inner drive.
Fitzgerald arrived in South Africa on the back of productive Grand Slam and Heineken Cup campaigns. Though only months older than Keith Earls, the then 21-year-old Fitzgerald acquired none of the 'baby' tags of his fellow tourist and was seen as a genuine contender for the left-wing Test spot.
A chest infection -- compounded by playing at altitude -- set him back, as did playing in the centre on his return, but Fitzgerald hit form at the right time and deserved to be selected in the No 11 jersey for the first Test, only for the unfortunate Ugo Monye to get the nod and manage to botch victory through two fluffed tries.
When Fitzgerald was brought in for the second Test, he had yet to get a foothold in the game when Schalk Burger worked a finger around the Irishman's eye and, though the offence was spotted, incredibly failed to earn a red card.
It was an event that would rattle the most experienced international and Fitzgerald went on to have a mixed match (not helped by blurred vision in the targeted eye) where he was at fault for the JP Pietersen try -- leading to his evisceration by defence coach Shaun Edwards at the post-match review and dropping for the final dead-rubber Test.
"It was a proper gouging," recalls Fitzgerald. "I kind of panicked because I had blurred vision in that eye for about 10 minutes afterwards, it put me off.
"But look, those things happen. You could say it changed the series in that he should have been sent off and the series would probably have been 1-1 but I'm not bitter about it.
"When we beat them here a few months after, the South African lads ran into a couple of my mates -- and I had got injured the game before -- and they sent their best wishes, good lads. I have no ill-feeling about it. It was a stupid thing and disappointing, but it's done.
"He (Burger) was probably a bit more friendly to me than I was to him when I met him after, but there was a few things going on. We had just lost a series we know we could have won and I had made mistake for a try.
"Plus, I had to miss a safari tour I was dying to go on to go to this disciplinary hearing two hours out of my way and talk about something that wasn't going to change so I wasn't in good form.
"He had a big smiley head on him having been out celebrating so I was probably thinking 'a***hole' at the time but if I met Schalk now I'd shake his hand and say 'how's it going', there's no issue.
"I think I learnt a lot as a player. Not getting picked for the first Test and getting dropped for the third were big blows, you think the bottom has dropped out of your world and you have to respond and I think I kicked on from it.
"I rely heavily on Enda McNulty and my dad for an outside perspective. I talked to both of them after the Lions tour and we decided we would use this as a motivating factor. I am very lucky to have my dad, who had his own experiences from his own career. I look back on the Lions as a positive experience."
Fitzgerald's post-Lions positivity manifested itself in some sparkling turns for Leinster at the start of the 2009/10 season only for him to suffer a serious knee injury (a ruptured lateral collateral ligament) in the first November International against Australia.
Out of the 2010 Six Nations, out of Leinster's Heineken Cup and Magners League campaigns, out of the summer tour and another task for Des and Enda.
"That long-term injury wrecked my head. It dominated every moment of my thoughts but then I decided in the last week I was not going to worry about it (the injury) and just go for it.
"Because there had been times when I held back a little, maybe the occasion got to me or whatever, and didn't do the things I was picked for which is to look for the ball and beat players."
Back to fitness and form at the start of this season, Fitzgerald was again laid low by a knee problem in November, this time against the All Blacks, not as bad and not as long out of action but another hurdle to clear. And then came 2011 ...
Fitzgerald admits his form going into the Six Nations was not what it could have been. Still finding his feet after the latest injury comeback, the unavailability of Rob Kearney and Geordan Murphy meant there was a slot in Fitzgerald's favoured full-back position and he thought he put in a decent performance against Italy -- only to be held to task by ex-Ireland full-back Conor O'Shea on the RTE panel for the Italian try that nearly secured a shock victory.
It led to an uncharacteristic riposte from Fitzgerald, something he regrets now.
"I was really frustrated because I thought I had quite a good game and to be criticised for that try really marred it, I was p*ssed off, so I made a bit of a rash comment and then regretted it later.
"Conor was someone I always went to watch play when I was younger and I don't want to get involved in a war of words with anyone, least of all Conor. It was the one time I have got involved in anything like that."
Things did not get any easier. For a player defined by his on-field assurance, to see Fitzgerald's uncertain displays at the back was discomfiting for everyone.
There has been a tendency to over-run the pass -- "yeah, Dad keeps telling me to drop back a metre, I can spot the moves and run the lines, I just need to hold back a little" -- and the harder Fitzgerald tried, the harder it looked.
Getting dropped for the final clash with England was "heart-breaking" and the return to Leinster colours and the left wing did not spark the turnaround Fitzgerald craved.
And so we come to this critical, watershed moment in Fitzgerald's career. In life, Fitzgerald's in a pretty good place, happy with his home, friends, family and extra-curricular activities, including the four-year business degree he has begun at the Institute of Public Administration in Ballsbridge (exams in August).
It is just the rugby that needs to be sorted and he is ready to do that, starting against Aironi this afternoon.
"Professional sport turns on small things. I was playing really well in 2009 and then someone slips into me and 'boom', I'm nine months out of the game. I am just desperate to get a bit of a kick-start at the end of the season and put a bit of pressure on Deccie.
"You do a lot of thinking when you go through a period like this, you think about everything. And I've come back to the attitude that forget about positions or anything, just play rugby. I just want to enjoy it again."
Irish rugby needs Fitzgerald to be back on song, he is too good to be out of the picture.
It has been an extremely difficult period for this gifted player, a time for reflection and now, hopefully, revival and there's an old Irish proverb that the fluent Irish speaker can relate to.
Is fada an bothar nach mbionn casadh ann -- it's a long road that has no turning.