‘Hardship makes you hungrier and tougher’
Luke Fitzgerald wants to be one of the best players in the world, he tells Brendan Fanning
If you’re in the business of harvesting quotes from professional athletes then you’ll have noticed a shift in the landscape in recent years. Its timing roughly can be traced, appropriately enough, to the arrival of the recession — hard on the heels of the 2007 World Cup.
There are a lot more heads with recording devices these days, and far fewer players with something worth recording. So here’s a tip: save your energy for someone with something to say; and sit him or her down soon after they’ve done a short, sharp gym session. That way the endorphins are spinning around their system. And in that buzzed-up state it’s like letting a greyhound out of the traps.
Luke Fitzgerald is off and running. Contracts — bad and good, injuries, ambitions, opponents, his mental and physical state . . . he bounces off them all as he races around the track. And the underlying theme of it is that he’s only starting his rugby career; the best is yet to come.
With a Grand Slam, a Six Nations Championship, three Heineken Cups and a Magners League to his credit, you could say he’s setting out from a unique position. For extra colour, throw in a Lions tour. To balance the good stuff, however, he has managed to rupture three different ligament groups in the same knee, in less than three and a half years, and subsequently to undergo a double fusion operation to correct bulging discs in his neck.
Wedged into all that lot also was the humiliating experience, in 2013, of having his national contract taken off the table after the IRFU and his agent couldn’t get it over the line. Leinster cobbled together some loose change to keep him in the paid ranks of the professionals. And he’s still only 27.
“I still think that there’s so much more in my game skill-wise and physically,” he says. “I feel like there’s an awful lot more I can give and that I can get out of my body. So yeah, I do feel since getting back in there, it was only the start. You look at a guy like Gordon D’Arcy or Brian O’Driscoll — there’s the potential to have seven more years at the top. When I came in I always felt there was the potential for a great career there and probably one of the best careers. I’ve obviously gone off track but I feel there’s the potential to get back to where I want to be: regarded as one of the best players in the world, and that’s where I want to get to. I’ve no problem saying that. If you’re not aspiring to be the best you feel you can be, then you’re in the wrong game, aren’t you?”
So what was he like when it looked like so much had gone so far wrong that indeed he might have been in the wrong game?
“Lots of guys would find me weird in that scenario, where I’m just a little bit bull-headed about it. Just really didn’t want to give up. As long as I felt it was safe to return from the injuries I was happy to take the risk and just get stuck in and play. The real questions you have to ask yourself when you’re coming back from a lot of injuries in a row is whether your body is capable of bringing you to the place you want to get to.
“And I did feel like it was, having taken advice. For me, then, it was just a case of hard work and putting in the time and the effort. Those things are easy enough to do when you feel like there’s an end-point. When it gets tricky is when you feel there is no end-point: ‘Jeez I’m banging my head against the wall here.’”
Lessons Luke Fitzgerald has learned along the way:
Number one: don’t take it personally when an employer decides to hedge his bets rather than take a punt on you. It’s just business. And it works both ways. So when you’re fit and flying you consider where best to park your talents, which may not be the same place you’ve been occupying since leaving school as a star, after which you got capped just five months later.
Number two: prehab like it’s a guaranteed antidote to every disease known to man. It was Keith Gleeson who gave the young Fitzgerald the benefit of this advice long before micro-managing your preparation became popular.
“I’ll never forget it,” Fitzgerald says. “He sat me down and said: ‘Look, do you want to talk about your career and how to prolong it and be a good pro?’ I said: ‘Absolutely, I’d love that, if you could give me 15, 20 minutes it would be brilliant’. He actually approached me about it so it was fantastic. He said to look after your prehab. So all your preparation for gym and preparation for matches and training on the pitch.
“That’s the most important part of training, and unfortunately it took me a couple of bad injuries to learn that the hard way. I always paid heed to it, but probably not enough. Whereas now I’m very much in Gleeso’s boat.”
So much is Fitzgerald on board with that idea that, stashed around town, he has go-to men for his shoulder and groin and whatever else needs loosening.
Number three: when you’re asked if you have sympathy for the man — Simon Zebo in this case — whose place you have just reclaimed on the Ireland team, don’t trot out a politically correct line about feeling sorry for him because he didn’t get a lot of attacking opportunities.
“I suppose you’ve got to put yourself in the positions to get them (attacking passes) haven’t you?” he says of his rival. “I think if you’re not getting them you’ve got to be doing other things as well, so the coach will make the call. I’m training well, playing well . . . I was delighted to get the call and didn’t give it a second thought really. He’s a nice guy and all and you have to be respectful because he’s a quality player, but from my own perspective I felt there was a lot of hard work and I didn’t really feel too sorry for the guy who got dropped. It’s ruthless and he’d feel the exact same so I don’t feel guilty about saying that I didn’t really care about how things were going for him.”
Number four: don’t get hung up on what others think, especially when you’re trying to decide whether to keep on keeping on, or to give up altogether — as he was on two occasions in his career. The first was when he needed that complicated neck surgery almost three years ago, and then last year when he seemed to have sorted everything out only to go under the knife again — for his groin.
“Can only speak for me, but I would think that from my own perspective, you probably get a little more ruthless. When you’re younger, you probably worry: What are my team-mates thinking? What are fans thinking? What are writers thinking?
“None of that really matters. It’s all white noise, a bit. I think what really matters is what’s right for you. I remember giving this advice to lots of guys, I don’t know whether they listened or not.”
Number five: feel free to flatter big-time someone you hope to be blitzing a matter of days after your declaration of man love. For example, when presented with the galaxy of stars who will line out for Toulon this afternoon in Marseille, Fitzgerald is happy to fix on a smaller one that has been shining since the Leinster wing was less than half-way through secondary school.
“Guys like (Matt) Giteau, who I think is class. He makes so many good decisions all the time. Just where he draws in an outside defender and draws an inside defender, he always takes two guys. Plus he is a cracker of an athlete for a small guy. He is my favourite player, a cracker of a player.”
Number six: focus on joining the dots rather than drawing the bigger picture.
“Monday morning you’ve had a crap game and boom it’s back to the start and you’ve got to go again. It’s a really difficult part of the job so you’ve got to be really process-focused to maintain a certain level of performance, and to keep getting picked and staying in the coach’s mind. That’s what the goals were for the Six Nations when I wasn’t picked. Before the first game I got sick the week of the Ireland A game and knew I wasn’t going to get picked against Italy, so I knew I had to get process-focused.”
That’s what kept him sane and in shape when Joe Schmidt, in the run-up to the Scotland game, decided that Zebo wasn’t giving him what he wanted. And in fairness to Fitzgerald, he delivered when it was needed. In his current state of mental and physical readiness it’s easy to imagine him burning up Stade Velodrome today.
Just over a year ago he watched from Dublin the quarter-final between these teams when he had been picked for the trip to Toulon. On the Tuesday his groin gave in. It was as low as he has been in his career, so to be in pole position again on race day is a wonderful feeling.
“They’re a great team but I think everyone here is ready to go to war,” he says. “I can’t see us running out the gate again. I can’t see it. I just think it’s going to be tight. I can’t call it but obviously I have the belief in our guys that we can do it. I saw something that Rob (Kearney) was saying in an interview a couple of days ago that we need to attack and I completely, completely agree with that. And there’s probably some lessons from that last game in the Six Nations: that’s how we should be playing — just backing ourselves.
“We’ve talked about it and Matty (Matt O’Connor) has been pushing it for a long time, but it’s just trying to implement the stuff on the pitch now. It’s up to the players. He has come in for some flak but I just love working for the guy. He is so creative. I really, really enjoy working with him so I’d like to do him a bit of justice as well.”
Luke Fitzgerald is a good man for writing down goals, and putting them in a place where he can see them every day. The World Cup is the most prominent on his vision board, naturally enough given he missed out on 2007 and 2011. You’d imagine too that there’s something in that collection about living every minute of his career.
“I’m actually probably far more relaxed and just happy to be playing,” he says. “I’d say I put huge amounts of pressure on myself mentally and physically before I got this run of injuries and having come back from so many in a row, every time I go out training I’m absolutely delighted, loving every second of it. Maybe having come straight from school, there was probably a period where I took it for granted but when you’ve been away for a bit, that hunger and appreciation for it comes back. A lot of the hardship that you go through, aside from making you more appreciative, it probably makes you tougher and that’s a big advantage I have.
“When things get tough, having gone through the setbacks, I always think I’m a little stronger. I always feel you have to sacrifice a little bit more to get back from those things. It always makes it harder to give up when you’ve sacrificed that little bit more. A big believer in that, the more you sacrifice, the harder it is to give in.”
With sweat on his brow and a bottle of water in his hand, he’s up and running again. Not an easy man to put down.