Sunday 22 September 2019

Luke Fitzgerald's three-month journey from Leaving Cert results to the Ireland team defines his immense talent

Will Slattery

Will Slattery

It all started on August 16 2006.

The Leaving Cert had ended for thousands of Irish students at the end of June, and on a sunny Wednesday, throngs of youngsters unsealed their results envelope to learn their faith.

That nerve-jangling moment marks the beginning of a new chapter in the lives of Irish teens every year, but on that particular day in August ten years ago, the career of Luke Fitzgerald wasn't kick-starting with the frantic calculating of points permutations on a calculator.

Luke Fitzgerald was born to play rugby. Not just because his dad Des played for Ireland - the elder Fitzgerald was a prop after all - but because the Blackrock schoolboy's talent was jaw-droppingly obvious from the moment he picked up the oval ball.

So while so many of his peers got ready for a celebratory Leaving Cert night out, Fitzgerald was over 1000km away in the hot, humid French city of Dax, in what amounted to his first day of work.

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Fitzgerald pulled on a Leinster jersey for the first time in a friendly that night, starting on the wing in a disappointing 24-5 friendly defeat.

After a stunning schoolboy career that saw him play in three straight Leinster Senior Cup finals and pick up two winners medals, a lot was expected of him.

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In that sense, it was a disappointing opening night - Fitzgerald even missed a conversion in front of the posts.

But the debut performance would be just a footnote - and everyone knew it. So when a cheeky Leinster fan teased Fitzgerald on the pitch afterwards about his Leaving Cert results, the dazzling attacker didn't take too much offence.

Everyone knew that rugby greatness awaited him.

He didn't even have to wait long. Three months after that Dax encounter, Fitzgerald made his international debut as an 19-year-old against the Pacific Islands in Lansdowne Road.

It seemed fitting - the player destined to light up the new stadium for years to come would be one of the last men to grace the pitch at the old one.

His first few years then followed the meteoric trajectory that everyone presumed it would. A Leinster regular right away, he ticked almost everyone career box in one magical season (2008/09) at just 21 - Grand Slam champion, Heineken Cup winner and Lions test starter.

We didn't know it then, but almost getting his eye wretched out of its sockets by Schalke Burger against South Africa in the test of tests would almost serve as a strange career crescendo.

After that there was still glory - another Heineken Cup medal, a Six Nations crown and a few Pro12s - but there were far more injuries than there were try-scoring bursts.

His career started so quickly, going from Leaving Cert results day to Ireland international in less than three months.

It ended quicker, going from Pro12 finalist to retirement in less than two, but although Luke Fitzgerald's star didn't burn as long as we had hoped it would, it wasn't a bad innings for someone who couldn't kick a conversion in front of the posts.

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