Friday 2 December 2016

Treasuring the journey

Rugby dominates Luke Fitzgerald's 'mundane life', as he tells John O'Brien

John O'Brien

Published 27/02/2011 | 05:00

Luke Fitzgerald. Photo: Sportsfile
Luke Fitzgerald. Photo: Sportsfile

H OME from the fray, he switches the television on, reaches for the remote and scrolls through the weekend's recordings until he finds what he is looking for. A new game, a fresh experience to evaluate.

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This is his Monday ritual. For the next few hours he'll sit and sift through the details, stopping the tape any time it comes to his moments, dictating the flow like a zealous referee at scrum-time: couch, play, pause, rewind.

Afterwards, there is the wisdom of Hook, Pope and O'Shea to contemplate, the part of the coverage that will be invariably chopped off when it is refined for squad consumption. Luke Fitzgerald can't help himself, though. He takes it all on board, each word eagerly devoured and internally processed. Even George? "Oh yeah," he laughs. "People say 'ah that's nuts what he's saying'. But I always listen. I find him very interesting."

Three weeks ago, he sat down to pore through the wreckage of the close call against Italy. Five minutes from time, Luke McLean went over in the Irish corner and Fitzgerald's role in the try was subjected to intense scrutiny. In pushing forward to confront Andrea Masi, it was deemed that he had left the Ireland line exposed when the ball was ferried wide to McLean. For once, the pundits were in unanimous agreement: Fitzgerald was the culprit-in-chief.

Fitzgerald bristled when he heard the verdict. It wasn't that he minded criticism. In his own words, he'd had "a shocker" in defence against Saracens in the Heineken Cup a few weeks previously when he was still feeling his way back after injury. But this was another story. When the opposition were within yards of your line, it was the duty of the last man to advance towards the ball-carrier. The alternative was standing back and allowing them to fall over the line.

That was the system. Basic stuff, he figured, hardly applied mathematics. And yet none of the watching experts seemed to grasp it and condemned him for a crime he didn't commit. He wondered in particular how Conor O'Shea, head coach at Harlequins and 35 caps at full-back to his name, could display such little understanding of one of the most fundamental rules of last-man defending. It wasn't just players who made mistakes, you know.

Later that week, he faced reporters at the squad's base in Killiney and O'Shea's comments still weighed heavily on his mind. He made his point as forcibly as he dared and, almost instantly, began to regret it. He surveyed the following day's headlines with a distinct sense of unease. Fitzgerald hungry to silence his critics was the general theme. Over four years since he made his Ireland debut against the Pacific Islands, it was the first puff of spoke he had generated. And he nearly choked on the fumes.

"It didn't really come across the way I wanted," he says now. "I was disappointed because I felt he'd made a mistake and I was on the receiving end of criticism as a result. But I didn't mean it to sound as if I've a lack of respect for him because that isn't the case. I've lots of time for Conor and I respect his opinion. That's probably why I chose to comment. I just think something was lost in the translation."

In ways this is classic Fitzgerald -- forthright opinion cloaked in careful diplomacy -- and a window into the mind of the modern professional. His father Des won 34 caps as a beefy prop and, famously, was one of the ringleaders when the Ireland squad threatened mutiny during the 1991 World Cup and, in the contrast between them, it is tempting to measure the distance the game has travelled since those haphazard times a generation back.

It is tempting too to wonder if the bumpy celebrity path trod by Brian O'Driscoll has served as a warning to those coming after him, yet Fitzgerald wouldn't be conceited enough to imagine he would ever inhabit O'Driscoll's galaxy. Nor would he want to. Last year he had a brief relationship with a girl that became regular fodder for newspaper social diarists. The attention perplexed him.

"I think a lot of it has to do with how big the game's become. A few years ago, Brian was the only one getting that kind of attention. Now you've guys like Rob, Jamie and Jonny in the tabloids a little bit. That makes it easier for everybody else. It's more spread out. It takes the pressure off. But I lead a pretty mundane life off the field anyway. If anyone's interested in what I do, I'd be surprised. It's not something I get too worked up about."

His father's deft hand in Fitzgerald's development as a player is patently obvious. With his son, Des has always been blunt and honest in his assessments, but never in a harsh or overbearing manner. Luke tells a story about the day Moss Keane visited the house before Christmas, 2009. It was the first time he fully realised that, although he had been too young to witness Des's career first-hand, he had been drawing from it all his life.

"I'd done my knee against Australia and I was stuck in the house, feeling a bit sorry for myself. Moss probably wasn't well at the time, but he never mentioned his own illness. It was all about me, how I was doing. That really helped put things in perspective for me. The way he just got on with things. He never made a big deal about it. He just fought to the bitter end and tried to maintain the best lifestyle he could."

He figures Des has encouraged him to be rigorous in his self-assessment without lapsing into negativity and he is happy with the balance he has achieved. This season injury has curtailed him to a mere 15 games, 10 for Leinster and five for Ireland, and he is happy to have two Six Nations' contests behind him in his preferred position of full-back. He doesn't imagine for a second that either performance was perfect or even close. He considers himself a work in progress. Going the right way.

When he watched a recording of the France game, he saw much to admire. As part of a young back three, he thought they were lively and dangerous whenever they got good service. It wasn't enough, of course, but that's a familiar complaint. He scored an early try that was chalked off, but did that mean you still couldn't applaud the finish? He missed a couple of high balls that drew sustained criticism, and he won't duck blame for that.

Two high balls in particular made him wince. He had assumed that with Damien Traille picked at inside centre France would opt to kick deep into Irish territory. It was a grievous miscalculation. Instead Morgan Parra kicked almost everything short and Fitzgerald found himself having to gallop forward to make up the distance, allowing the 6' 4" Aurelien Rougerie dominate the space.

"Look, Rougerie did very well but I was disappointed about that," he says. "I feel I can do a lot better under high balls. I misjudged their tactics and didn't react as well as I should in the second half when I realised they were kicking short all the time. I should've moved in a bit closer instead of coming in from miles out. I was disappointed but I know I can do better if I get another chance."

He won't panic anyway and he wonders at the wisdom of those who would foresee doom for this Ireland side so early in the season. From the start he has always liked the shrewd, understated way Declan Kidney goes about his business and the way he encourages players, even the youngest and least experienced in the squad, to express their views, for all O'Driscoll sounded a warning about too many voices in the camp last week.

After France, Fitzgerald looked forward to their next squad gathering because he felt he had a worthwhile contribution to make. Before the game it had been suggested, by Paul O'Connell among others, that Ireland were suffering from a lack of self-belief. Fitzgerald was intrigued. He respects O'Connell's opinion, of course, but that view didn't tally with his own. The issue was more fundamental, he thought. It didn't call for quick fixes or panic measures.

"I don't feel there's any lack of confidence there," he says. "I think everybody wants to do well and maybe when it's not coming off for us, we're not as relaxed or as composed as we should be. I think that'll come with the time out. When you look at the games, everything's been very frantic. It's all been a million miles an hour. But there's still three games to go yet.

"Everybody has had a week off now, everything becomes a little more relaxed, everybody becomes that bit more comfortable with each other and the systems we have. Everything will be a little less frantic. I think you'll always see that coming from the middle to the later stages of the Six Nations. Guys get a bit more comfortable with each other. They start to play better as a team."

Fitzgerald has always had a fiercely intense outlook on the game. Another gift from his father, he thinks. As a player, Des was ahead of his time in his approach to the game and applied the same principles when it came to his business career. In Luke's first season with Leinster his friend Dave Moore introduced him to Enda McNulty, then establishing himself as a sports psychologist, and the mental gospel preached by the former Armagh football left a vivid impression on Fitzgerald.

He'll see McNulty maybe eight times a year now and establish his goals for the months and years ahead, never leaving a meeting without an enhanced sense of well-being or a clearer focus. Without specifying his current targets, it is clear that they revolve chiefly around this year's World Cup and a wiping out of the lingering stain left when Eddie O'Sullivan deemed him surplus to requirements in 2007.

"I'd been in the training camp before the squad was picked and thought I'd done really well. But then I wasn't even in the final 37 and that was so disappointing. I felt I was playing better rugby than some of the guys who went ahead of me. But I think you grow from that. You learn from your setbacks. It's the same with Jamie [Heaslip] and Rob [Kearney]. They didn't go either and I think we all showed over the next couple of years by winning a Heineken Cup and a Grand Slam that we should've been picked."

Four years on, he sees how far they've all come. He rooms with Sexton a lot on their travels and the intensity the outhalf brings to his craft never ceases to astonish him. He sees the lonely hours Sexton puts in on the training ground, hour upon hour honing his kicking skills, and yet, for all his intensity, there was a serenity about him that was equally impressive. If Fitzgerald was missing something, then there was the key. He needed to take a leaf from Jonny's book.

Even as a kid they told him. He would mesmerise people with his skills, dazzle crowds with his talents, yet they wondered why he seemed so serious about it. Why he didn't play with a smile on his face. He's working on it. Letting himself go a little now. Last year he took over Bernard Jackman's weekly Evening Herald column and the challenge is invigorating him. Venturing an opinion or two. Not seeing a landmine in every footstep.

During the Lions tour he remembers Jamie Roberts, the young Welsh centre, talking about having a laugh during the Test and, as strange as the words sounded, he sees the sense of them now. "He said you're out there with your mates, giving it 100 per cent, you have to enjoy it. And he was right. It's a short career. You have to savour every minute of it."

In The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, one of his favourite books, a young boy Santiago sets out on a fabulous adventure to find the elusive elixir that can turn base metal into gold. At every turn he sees spectacular things and meets wonderful people without finding his treasure. But we realise, of course, that what Santiago sets out to find never existed in the first place. The real treasure lay in the journey itself.

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