Saturday 24 February 2018

'Fitzgerald in pole position to fill O'Driscoll's boots', says Easterby

Easterby insists Leinster star has all-round game to succeed legend in No 13 shirt following his influential cameo against All Blacks

Leinster's Luke Fitzgerald, left, and Shane Jennings in training ahead of the Pro 12 game against Scarlets
Leinster's Luke Fitzgerald, left, and Shane Jennings in training ahead of the Pro 12 game against Scarlets
Brian O'Driscoll leaves the field against New Zealand

ECHOES of painful history in a south Dublin field, but thoughts already turning to the future.

It's back to the day job for Leinster's battered and bruised Ireland contingent, though not all of the 18 Irish squad members have clocked in.

Brian O'Driscoll is the chief absentee, nursing a confirmed concussion that both player and employer quickly fronted up on. Dealing with injury setbacks have become an unwelcome habit for the legendary centre this season.

The ageless Gordon D'Arcy is there, gambolling about beneath his jungle of a beard after one of his most influential performances in Irish green.

Beside him, Luke Fitzgerald's facial hair may be swiftly untangling, but not his stout attempts to prove that he can become O'Driscoll's long-term midfield successor -- as demonstrated by his influential cameo on Sunday.

The Kearneys are absent. Rob was tight-lipped about how he managed to soothe the aching ribs that survived an All Blacks assault; one can assume he may feel the after-effects for some time.


Quite what onlooking head coach Matt O'Connor makes of it all is difficult to ascertain. He was at his day job last Sunday, overseeing a gritty 21-20 win in Treviso minus his best 18 players.

That was a game in which few outside of the camp had any interest; at the same time, the match of the ages was captivating a nation back home.

O'Connor must now reassimilate some of his stars, though not all, as Leinster count down to their December Heineken Cup double-header with Northampton.

"In the coach's first year, it makes it difficult because you are trying to get a bit of continuity and a bit of consistency into your performance," said manager Guy Easterby.

"On the other hand, you have to give great credit to the lads that have been here. We've gone away to the Dragons and away to Treviso, two teams who were less affected than us by international call-ups.

"Dragons feels like a long time ago now. To go away there, it is always an interesting trip. Then to go to Treviso on the weekend and win a tough, close game, you've got to give great credit to the boys who've played in those games."

Aside from O'Driscoll and the over-loaded players ruled out this weekend -- presumably all from Rob and Dave Kearney, D'Arcy, Cian Healy, Mike Ross, Devin Toner, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip -- there are fringe benefits for Leinster.

Primarily, Fitzgerald's reintroduction as a leading contender to succeed clubmate O'Driscoll in the No 13 jersey.

"The way Luke is bouncing around the place, we would be hopeful he will be involved at the weekend," enthused Easterby. "I think he's got the skills set for there. Defensively, he's very sound. Physically, he's really sound. He's got a great passing game as well, great feet.

"He's got everything that a top No 13 needs. What he probably needs is some game time there. He's played a good bit on the wing throughout his career and a bit at full-back, as well as spending a bit of time at 13/12.

"He certainly has the ability to do it. We're looking for a long-term successor to Brian and Luke's got to be right up there in terms of the queue behind him."

Fitzgerald's main obstacles have been injury setbacks which have hampered him both physically and mentally.

"He's probably stronger for that, if that makes any sense," said Easterby. "He has had his injury setbacks. But it is amazing when you still see him bouncing into the place having a real positive attitude and wanting to play, which is great.

"The guy has missed a lot of rugby through those injuries. But he wants to play and he wants to be in. I am not surprised because when you miss that much, every minute counts. That's showing in his performances."

Easterby was also pleased to laud another player, Toner, who somehow seemed to grow even taller during what may prove to be a career-defining Test window. "He's been growing and growing, hasn't he?" mused Easterby.

"What you've seen over the last 18 months is that he's had a consistency of performance for Leinster. Has that translated into the international arena? Well, he's probably been in or out of the team.

"But I think you saw over those three games that he's got himself to a stage now at international level where he's really making statements in games.

"It's fantastic for Leinster rugby, fantastic for Irish rugby, fantastic for Devin because again he's someone who has had to bide his time and mature, get to understand his body and do all those things. He's coming out the plus side of it now and it's great to see."

Prop Jack McGrath is likely to start against Scarlets this weekend and Easterby insists that the youngster will have no problem casting aside the disappointment of his late transgression in Sunday's thriller.

"It's difficult for him, isn't it, because he's had an amazing three weeks," said Easterby.

"It seemed like a reasonably tough call, the penalty, you've got to remember they were 65-odd metres from our line when the penalty was given.

"Jack will deal with that in the best way possible. He's a really well-balanced kid, he really is, and what I like about him is that he's had to bide his time too, he's stayed patient and I think he's reaping the rewards of that."

Both Leinster and Ireland will hope to benefit, confirming the enduring strength of the Irish system, much as it may frustrate the new Leinster coach.

Irish Independent

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