Thursday 21 September 2017

'You need to do extraordinary things to achieve this'

Luke Fitzgerald relives the remarkable events of last weekend with David Kelly and says he finally sees the light at the end of the tunnel after a tough 18 months

Luke Fitzgerald. Photo: Sportsfile
Luke Fitzgerald. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

"Oh, anyway, it's looking like a beautiful day"

Before the ultimate honour, ultimate humility. The final whistle begets a scene of carnage. Exhausted Leinster bodies disentangle themselves from an impromptu huddle.

Luke Fitzgerald catches the eye of an opponent and shakes his hand. Then another. Then another. He espies a prone Calum Clark, floored in writhing agony. The pair slap hands. Fitzgerald walks on. Then he stops.

He bends down and says something to the stricken, beaten player. Fitzgerald grabs Clark's left leg and begins the familiar process to ease the cramp. All around him, Leinster players are immersed in puddles of emotive outpouring with friends and family.

A Leinster fan from Tyrrellspass, sitting in the main stand, has captured this moment and sent it to us -- Fitzgerald easing the pain of his beaten opponent.

"You know yourself," he says this week, reliving this extraordinary day in the life, "you're in the heat of battle and doing everything to beat these guys.

"You've got to appreciate everyone is trying their best. I've been in those situations before when I've lost a final. You'll do anything you can to lessen the pain. His cramping was an illustration of just how much everyone had given.

"You feel sorry for those lads. It's a tough place to be, having given everything. That empathy is only something you can show after an occasion like that. It's all you have left to give."

YOU CANNOT but start this story at the end. So many emotions whirling after a day which tumble-dried a chain of barely believable events. After leaving the still suffering Clark, Fitzgerald sought out his parents in the stand.

He can see Andrea but suddenly a familiar, beaming smile intrudes. "Felipe," he screams. Mum must wait. "I just ended up giving him a big smacker as well."

Andrea understood.

After all, this was a day that had just turned upside down.

LET US go back to the bottom. 17-6 down, Leinster's dreams are turning to dust. Nine missed tackles. Eight turnovers. A mangled scrum. But 17-6 ... if we can just hang on ... And then ...

" ... They scored their third try. I couldn't believe what was going on. I really couldn't. I thought we might be able to claw back something. But I definitely wasn't expecting them to score.

"We were panicking on the pitch then. That's why it was great to get in and calm ourselves down. We needed the chance to tell ourselves that the game was in control once we played like we did all year, and sort out a few technical issues."

The half-time hubbub is broken by Jonny Sexton. Something tugged at Fitzgerald's memory bank. The only other time he saw Lazarus on a rugby field was seven years ago in Donnybrook, when he and Jonny were on opposing sides.

JONNY WAS the captain and lead star on a stellar Mary's senior schools team; Blackrock were, for them, a relatively artisan vintage. Mary's led 17-3 at the break, Jonny kicking everything, directing operations.

It should have been 24-3 but Darragh Fanning just failed to gather a late scissors move. No matter. Game over.

As 'Rock huddled on the '22' at the break, coach Niall McDermott was showered with a freightload of pigeon s**t as he delivered his lecture. You didn't need to study Latin to get a handle on what just happened.

The present intervenes. Now Leo Cullen is talking. Despite the carnage outside, within the sanctum all is eerily calm.

"Everyone tried to get involved a little bit. The important thing was that there were a lot of really good technical points made at half-time. There was no panic. That was the key to it.

"You see that from all the great sporting teams. Obviously, you need to make all the technical adjustments. But if you're not mentally right, you're nowhere. We knew we were a good enough team to go out and do it. We just had to believe, and we did.

"It's one of those special moments and it was a privilege to be in a dressing-room where this could happen. We've got a great blend of players who've played at the top level for years in tight games, then the young guys who are seriously motivated.

"We believe we can be the best once we back each other up. We know we can get out of any situation. It's a reflection of how tight this squad is and how everyone wants others to do well, even the water boys. It was a 30-man effort, unbelievable.

"There are so many leaders now. Leo's rarely got a mention but he was brilliant at half-time. He's the epitome of a great leader, so calm, so reassuring. Joe is piping in, Drico is piping in, what the front-row guys did, and the other leaders as well. Then you had Jon."

Back to 2004. Fitzgerald came on at centre as the game swivelled 180 degrees. 'Rock scored three tries. Still, Mary's could have won it with a late kick. As Sexton addressed, some bright spark had switched on the floodlights. Distracted, Sexton missed. 'Rock won 22-20.

"Everything went our way that day," he recalls.

Back to the future. He doesn't remember Sexton's first conversion smacking off the uprights and over. Yet he distinctly remembers Steve Myler's effort hitting the same post before the break.

"I was chasing and I remember looking back and thinking, 'well, that's over as well.' But it didn't. Then Jonny hits one from the same part of the pitch and his goes over. I don't remember it hitting the post though! But, without that, we'd still have been behind from the later scrum penalty, you know. Small margins."

THAT SECOND HALF unleashed a tsunami of this team's profound belief in each other's strength and talent. A glorious exhibition of unity that nothing could possibly counter.

For Fitzgerald, in whom faith was in constant provision by Schmidt when so many others doubted, the feeling of liberation could be even more profound.

"It's been a tough 18 months for me. You talk about momentum in a game, but there's personal momentum too. You're not doing what you were doing when you played your best rugby.

"But it's been great to have some continuity there -- the coaches trust me to get it right. Over the last two or three weeks, I've shown what I can do.

"For me, it's about getting more touches on the ball. I showed that against Ulster, getting that nice try at the end. If I can get my hands on the ball, I think I'm going to be a dangerous player and a hard guy to stop.

"It will make me stronger. Players have these patches and it's nice to see light at the end of the tunnel. You're in a dark place when you're not playing well, but I've put it behind me at this stage."

The future is now. At 23, he has won medals it took O'Driscoll and Shane Horgan a career to compile, opportunities denied to others like Reggie Corrigan and Denis Hickie who sadly weren't around to taste such success.

"Hopefully this is just the beginning. Look at guys like Drico and Leo, how long did they have to play before they'd won the greatest prizes? The danger is that for the young kids in our squad, this is an ordinary thing."

Except he knows it isn't. "It's important for us to know how hard it is to achieve in this sport," he says.

"It's not an ordinary thing because you need to do extraordinary things to achieve it. And you have to work extraordinarily hard."

"So throw those curtains wide! One day like this a year would see me right!"

Irish Independent

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