Wednesday 11 December 2019

Cian Tracey: 'Connacht's refusal to allow Fitzgerald slip through the net reaping dividends'

Out-half making the most of his second chance with the western province

The west’s awake: Conor Fitzgerald has made the most of his chance with Connacht. Photo: Alexandre Dimou/Sportsfile
The west’s awake: Conor Fitzgerald has made the most of his chance with Connacht. Photo: Alexandre Dimou/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

When Connacht announced their starting team to play Toulouse last week, there were a few eyebrows raised when Jack Carty was named as number 22 and not 10.

Upon seeing the XV, the initial reaction was to assume he had picked up an injury that ruled him out of contention, but when he was included among the replacements, that's when the surprise came.

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Carty would be the first to admit that he didn't have his best outing against Montpellier a week earlier, yet this isn't so much about him, but rather the form of Conor Fitzgerald.

While Carty was away at the World Cup, Fitzgerald was the man tasked with keeping the show on the road, and he did so in impressive fashion.

So when the 22-year-old Fitzgerald came off the bench and nervelessly kicked the match-winning penalty to get Connacht's Heineken Champions Cup campaign off to an ideal start, it left Andy Friend with a welcome selection headache for last Saturday's trip to Toulouse.

Friend eventually came to the conclusion that Fitzgerald was the man to pull the strings in the French cauldron. It was a huge show of faith for a player who is only in his second year with the club and up until that Montpellier game, his only previous European experience was playing in the Challenge Cup.

Given Connacht ended up losing the game, it would be easy to suggest that Friend's brave decision didn't pay off, but that is a lazy assessment.

Connacht's problems started up front and while they ultimately came away empty-handed, they will have plenty of regrets because they were good enough to get at least a losing bonus point on a day when Toulouse weren't firing on all cylinders.

Fitzgerald impressed when he was in possession as his range of passing invited runners onto the ball. He will have been disappointed with his missed penalty as the baying crowd appeared to get into his head. He will be all the better for the testing experience, however.

The Clare native didn't shirk his defensive responsibilities either, particularly on 47 minutes when he made a superb tackle on Lucas Tauzin, who had run a searing line.

Tom Farrell won a turnover penalty from the resulting breakdown and a minute later, Connacht went down the other end of the field and retook the lead through a really well-executed Fitzgerald drop-goal.

It was a mark of a player fully confident in his own ability and that he decided to take the kick on, spoke volumes about his decision-making.

That Fitzgerald ended up in Connacht is yet another success story that highlights the importance of Irish rugby not allowing young players to slip through the net.

After playing for the Limerick minor hurlers, Munster had managed to tempt him to the oval ball before going on to release him from the academy.

He could so easily have turned his back on rugby, but Connacht, as they have done really well in recent years, offered him a second chance. Fitzgerald impressed in his first year of the academy, and was promoted to a professional contract this season.

He joins a long list of players who have managed to rebuild their careers out west, including his older brother Stephen, who also secured a senior deal after an initial loan agreement was extended.

Tom Farrell and Tom Daly have done the same, which again goes to show that if one door closes, another is never too far from opening.

Drifted

Friend has been central to reinvigorating young Irish players who could so easily have drifted out of the system, but on a wider level, the joined-up thinking between the provinces can only bode well for the future.

At the same time, protecting the inter-pro rivalries is important, but even that has diluted over the last few years.

As the IRFU's performance director David Nucifora previously outlined: "I think, at the end of the day, the players make the decisions. It's not up to us really. It's not up to the provinces.

"The national coaches will want to see guys playing. The boys know that and I think we are doing everything we can within the system to create that competition, but ultimately have the player make the choice."

Those opportunities will continue to present themselves and, as Fitzgerald has proved, making the most of your second chance can be the making of your professional career.

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