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Fitzgerald left facing an uncertain future

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Leinster's Luke Fitzgerald

Leinster's Luke Fitzgerald

Leinster's Luke Fitzgerald

THIS time three years ago, Luke Fitzgerald was flying.

He had just come off a Grand Slam-winning season with Ireland, was about to star in Leinster's surge to their first Heineken Cup title before going on to become a Lions Test player in South Africa.

As well as being a gifted rugby player, Fitzgerald was also young, engaging and highly marketable, at the forefront of an exciting new wave of Irish rugby talent and had a long career stretching ahead of him as one of the world's elite backs.

Back then, it seemed as though Fitzgerald was simply fulfilling his destiny. Son of highly respected Ireland prop Des, Fitzgerald's abilities had been flagged from an early stage in the country's most renowned rugby nursery, Blackrock College, and his rapid progression into the senior ranks was always regarded as a case of when rather than if.

Today, Fitzgerald, still only 24, finds himself pondering his future after a year-and-a-half struggle with fitness and form. There are a number of questions hanging over his career -- finding the right answers will determine whether this superb player can get back to where Ireland needs him to be.

What is the situation with Fitzgerald's contract?

Negotiations are understood to have been ongoing between Fitzgerald's representatives, Platinum One, and the IRFU for approximately six months with both sides sticking doggedly to their bargaining positions.

Fitzgerald was on an IRFU contract believed to be worth in the region of €280,000 per annum but increased financial pressure, allied to the fact he is no longer among the frontline Ireland players, led to a reduced offer understood to be around the €200,000 mark to sign for another two years.

Prolonged negotiations, as happened with Rob Kearney last season, are par for the course in recent times, with managed use of media frequently employed as a tactic to get the ball rolling. In Fitzgerald's case, his fall down the pecking order of Ireland's backs strengthens the 'take it or leave it' stance from the union.

What could Fitzgerald earn abroad?

It depends on where he plays. If Fitzgerald wanted to try his hand in the English Premiership, he wouldn't be able to command massive money with industry sources claiming very few players earn more than £200,000 in England due to the salary cap and overall financial pressures.

Wingers are not considered among the high earners with Chris Ashton one of the exceptions, joining Saracens from Northampton on a deal believed to worth in the region of £250,000.

Insiders say Fitzgerald would have a greater market value if he were signing as a specialist outside centre but his versatility still adds to his attractiveness and, depending on which club he joined, he could be expected to command in the region of £180-190,000.

While his form has fluctuated over the past 15 months, Fitzgerald is still a big name and has attracted interest from France also. The fact it is nearly April reduces his bargaining power as French clubs have concluded most of their transfer business by this stage, but if he did manage to join one of the bigger Top 14 sides, Fitzgerald could be looking at a salary around the €270,000 mark.

Would it be a good career move to leave?

That is the key question. There is no doubt Fitzgerald would prefer to stay with Leinster and play in Ireland.

As well as being his home team, the Heineken Cup champions have become one of Europe's elite clubs and Fitzgerald's chances of international rejuvenation are best served by staying in Ireland, as a move abroad inevitably takes a player off the international radar.

Taking the reduced deal to stay at home may be a necessary sacrifice to refuel Fitzgerald's international aspirations, but there are valid reasons to try his hand in a different rugby environment also.

Fitzgerald is a major player in Ireland and his struggles have, consequently, commanded a high profile while the depth of backline talent at Leinster means he is no longer guaranteed his place.

His situation is similar to Munster scrum-half Tomas O'Leary who, after falling out of favour with Ireland and Munster with a concurrent loss of salary clout, has taken the decision to relocate to London Irish to revive his career.

At 24, Fitzgerald has plenty of time on his side and removing himself from the glare of the Irish game to rediscover his form and build his confidence back up could be just what he needs at this point in his career.

Does Fitzgerald have a long-term Ireland future?

Unquestionably. Fitzgerald remains one of the most naturally gifted attackers in the Irish game and while his performances have suffered from his attempts to 'force' a return to form, the quick feet, pace and ability to create attacking opportunities out of unpromising situations remain firmly in place.

After some eye-catching cameos last August, there were justifiable calls to take Fitzgerald to the World Cup in place of back-up out-half/utility back Paddy Wallace, where his game-changing ability could have been invaluable.

Even in a mixed overall performance in Leinster's loss to the Ospreys last Friday, Fitzgerald still produced the game's best bit of individual brilliance with a wonderful jink and surge that wrong-footed a clutch of defenders.

Ireland are well aware of his innate qualities and a good run of games for his province could still earn him a place in Ireland's squad for the summer tour to New Zealand.

It has been a torrid 15 months for a player who in 2009 seemed destined to follow Brian O'Driscoll's route to greatness, but there is plenty of time to get Fitzgerald back on that path.

The bottom line is that Fitzgerald always carries the potential to give you something extra and, wherever his career now takes him, his class ensures this Ireland story is far from over.

Fitzgerald's highs and lows

HIGHS

November 26, 2006

EIGHT months after leading Blackrock College to a Leinster Schools Senior Cup title and just two months after turning 18, Fitzgerald makes his Ireland debut on the right wing in a 61-17 win over the Pacific Islands in the last international at the old Lansdowne Road.

February 15, 2009

FITZGERALD scores his first two tries for Ireland as they beat Italy en route to a first Grand Slam since 1948. The left wing played all but the last four minutes of the campaign, when he was replaced by Paddy Wallace in Cardiff.

June 2009

AFTER winning the Grand Slam and the Heineken Cup with Leinster, Fitzgerald is the second youngest player on the Lions tour to South Africa. The 21-year-old has a mixed tour and is criticised for, at times, over-running passes and trying too hard. However, he caps an amazing season by earning the trust of Ian McGeechan for the dramatic second Test in Pretoria.

December 17, 2011

HAVING endured a terrible time with injuries and form, the winger finally looks back to his very best in a scorching performance for Leinster against Bath in their Heineken Cup Pool win. Fitzgerald cuts the English defence apart, scoring two tries in a scintillating display.

LOWS

2007 World Cup

WITH two caps to his name, Fitzgerald firmly believed that he would be selected for the World Cup by Eddie O'Sullivan, but after some early involvement in the pre-tournament training camps, he is cut from the squad.

June 27, 2009

Thirty seconds into his Lions Test debut, Fitzgerald is gouged by Springbok Schalk Burger. The South African flanker is amazingly shown just a yellow card, despite clear evidence of the offence as the Lions crash to a late defeat.

November 15, 2009

DURING a 20-all draw with Australia, Fitzgerald picks up the knee injury that keeps him out of the remaining autumn Tests, the Six Nations and the rest of Leinster's season.

March 12, 2011

A disappointing display at full-back for Ireland against Wales in defeat at the Millennium Stadium. Fitzgerald is dropped from the '22 a week later as Keith Earls stars at 15 and Ireland destroy England.

August 22, 2011

AFTER failing to convince Declan Kidney in the warm-up games, Fitzgerald is sensationally axed from the Ireland World Cup squad. Returns to training with Leinster and plays in the Pro12 during the tournament.

Irish Independent