Luke Fitzgerald: 'I didn't have a Plan B'
Luke Fitzgerald's rugby career was blighted by injury but, he tells Chrissie Russell, parents need to let their children play rugby despite the risks
There are probably thousands of kids and parents across Ireland that secretly harbour dreams of being or producing a future Ireland player.
Daddies and mammies with hopes of standing in the crowd, teary eyed, as junior steps out on to the pitch to represent his, or her, country.
But what if your child gets hurt playing that sport? What if one bad knock not only ends their career, but leaves them with a lifelong injury where every day is a battle with pain?
It's something former Irish international rugby player Luke Fitzgerald knows a bit about. He was that child prodigy, debuting for Leinster mere months after sitting his Leaving Cert and, in November 2006, becoming the youngest Irish player to be capped in nearly 30 years.
Disappointingly, his promising career was blighted by injury, with a collision in a match against Connacht in the Guinness Pro12 Final in 2015 putting an end to his rugby days. Not only that, but the injury, diagnosed as bulging discs in his neck, was deemed one that couldn't be fixed, leaving the promising full-back unable to play sport again and battling chronic pain, something he will have to deal with for the rest of his life.
Last week, the 30-year-old was revealed as the face of the #TodayIsBetter campaign, an initiative led by Pfizer and supported by the Irish Pharmacy Union to gain better insight and support for those living with chronic pain. New research shows that 10pc of Irish people live with chronic pain, battling persistent discomfort associated with arthritis, back pain, migraines and other conditions. It's estimated that 380,000 people are affected, with 23pc of those having to leave their job because of their condition - a category Fitzgerald found himself in.
But whilst he's more than happy to front the campaign and raise awareness of what it's like to live with chronic pain, the former international feels passionately about one thing he doesn't want to be: a cautionary tale.
"I worry that people are too worried about sports," he says. "I really worry about people not bringing their kids down to mini-rugby or soccer because they're worried they might get hurt."
Even with the years that have passed, one might expect Fitzgerald to harbour some bitterness with the hand rugby dealt him. But instead, his love for the sport is even more pronounced. "It's a great game, a super game," he insists. "You can't let fear override every decision, otherwise what do you do?
"Rugby teaches you everything. To be part of a team, to take direction, to cope with disappointment when you lose and elation when you win. You make friends for life.
"If your kid's a little bit tubbier than the other kids, he's important in a rugby team, the tall kid is important to the line-out, the small kid, he's the scrum-half, the general in the team, fast kid… there's a place for everyone in rugby and that's one of the things I love about it. I would hate to see people not bringing their kids out to experience this sport that I've learned so much from and I love so much because they are worried about people getting hurt."
He agrees (and knows first-hand) that collisions are getting bigger, career spans shorter, but even so he's resolute that the benefits of playing an impact sport far outweigh the risks. And he says it's a viewpoint his own parents, who witnessed some of those collisions he took, would agree with him on.
"Mammies have been worrying for years and years," he grins. "But what's important from the mammy's perspective, and I know my own mam thinks like this herself, is that what you get out of sport is greater than the risks of getting hurt. The important thing is to teach the kids to do the right things correctly so they lessen the chances of getting hurt. That's the big thing. Otherwise what do we do? Leave them at home in front of the PlayStation? That's no good, that's not what life is about."
His own early retirement, he believes, was largely bad luck: "I hit my head into a guy's hip at an awkward position and that was me done." But he also believes he could have trained better. "I probably trained in poor positions," he says. "Just in terms of when you're in the gym and someone will say to you 'you're not running right' or 'lifting weights right' - I wish I'd changed that."
Chronic pain had never been on his radar before experiencing it first hand. The label simply refers to pain from an illness or injury that isn't going away. It's not something recognised as a diagnosis in itself right now, but there are plans underway by the World Health Organisation to classify it as a disease in 2018. Fitzgerald's pain manifests itself in different ways. If he stays too long in one position he can get pain spasms in his left arm. It can affect blood flow to the arm which can lead to loss of muscle mass.
"If I have a bad day, I could be in serious discomfort," he explains. "I can get very stiff, very uncomfortable. It can make you very agitated, affecting your personal relationships, your demeanour and work relationships."
To manage this, he's had to develop coping mechanisms - making sure he's sitting in the right positions with his neck correctly aligned. He likes to write out plans to get him back to comfort, and family and friends have been a huge source of support.
"I feel writing things down is a great way of keeping you focused and keeping you positive. I think every day you have to do something to make your situation better."
That doesn't mean it's always easy. "I've definitely had periods where it's been challenging," he admits. "Days when I can't get comfortable and it can get you down. There are days when I wish I could go out and have a cup of coffee or a pint with the lads, but I don't want to sit on a bad seat and be uncomfortable all day tomorrow."
Interestingly, though he baulks at the idea of being used as a cautionary tale for what can go wrong in rugby, there is one thing he'd like other players, past and present, to learn from his experience. Now working in finance in the Treasury Department of AIB bank, and in media commentary, Fitzgerald wishes he'd laid the foundations for a fall-back career sooner.
"I didn't have a plan B and I would say it's one thing I think players could definitely do better," he says. "It would alleviate an awful lot of stress. I've said that to some of the guys: make sure you're preparing. I was lazy about getting myself moving because I was fully focused on my rugby, but you can do both.
"I'm starting from the bottom rung now - and don't get me wrong, I'm loving it - but it would have been great to have been able to start a Masters while I was playing because there is time to do both."
He says the structures are in place to facilitate those preparing for life after rugby, but players need to be more motivated to make use of them. "There's a real issue of urgency in getting people to realise that. You could be like me. You could have one knock and the course of your career, and your life, could change overnight.
"If I've one bit of advice worth taking, it's that having a few tough years taking the time to prepare while you're playing rugby is worth it because it'll give you a better chance of getting started on the next part of life which is, let's face it, the biggest portion of your life. It's huge compared to a best case scenario of 10 or 15 years of a rugby career."
Refreshingly, Fitzgerald isn't one of those people who adhere to the 'no regrets' philosophy. "Of course you'd change things!" he says. "If you've no regrets then really, what did you learn? How did you grow exponentially?
"When I look back at everything that's happened, there's a degree of being unfulfilled. I spent probably half of my career injured and a huge portion of my career playing catch-up. Of course there's a bit of regret there."
But regrets about playing rugby in the first place? Never.
Listen to Luke Fitzgerald on the Left Wing at independent.ie/podcasts