Saturday 16 November 2019

Low profile will help Fitzgerald reach new highs

Struggling star must stop airing his opinions

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

What to do about Luke? In truth not a lot. Yet it would be wrong to pass off an uncomfortably long dip of form as a mere blip in an extremely talented young player's burgeoning career.

As sure as the sun will come up again and Fernando Torres will hit the net at Chelsea, Luke Fitzgerald will be racing in tries for Ireland in the future.

Whether he will be playing on the wing is another matter entirely, but what is not in question is Fitzgerald's inherent ability to cut loose at any time. However, he is suffering a crisis in confidence, and as a consequence, a crisis in form.

And that is what it is -- a confidence issue. It is nothing to do with fitness, ability or temperament, as the 23-year-old possesses those qualities in abundance, but he is putting himself under pressure and giving himself the type of psychological burden he could do without at his age.


He may be a Lion with 18 senior caps already -- but he is a mere novice, still finding his way.

What Fitzgerald needs to do is read less, relax more, abandon the newspaper column, listen to his Dad (been there, done that) and don't respond to criticism, however well intentioned the source.

He is not helping himself with his public utterings. Even as I write these words, I see in front of me on the cover of the May issue of 'Rugby World' a large picture accompanied by 'Luke Sharp' -- Luke Fitzgerald wants the Ireland No 15 shirt back. Not a good idea. Take it from one who knows the danger of being too readily available to a media interested in many things, but least of all the welfare of the individual at the heart of the story of the day.

Where I did differ is that NEVER, and I mean NEVER, did I go down the route of suggesting what position I wanted to play. Perhaps we were victims of our times, but upset the hierarchy and you were out on your ear. It was one of many harsh lessons learned along the way. We played at a time when the powers that be in Lansdowne Road had absolute rule and respect for players was zilch.

Thankfully the game has moved on, with player welfare now paramount.

However, where I would turn back the clock is in relation to players penning newspaper columns -- ghosted or otherwise. It is an issue the provinces here need to address, just as the Lions management did following the Tour to Australia in 2001, when they decided to ban players from writing diaries and columns as part of the overall playing contract.

The time to join the analysts -- who never put a foot wrong when commenting from the press box -- is when your playing days are over.

For Fitzgerald, injury permitting, that's another 10 years away yet. As of now though, by saying very little of consequence, he is alienating himself from the public.

Unwittingly, he is setting himself up for a fall. When searching for form, the last thing you need is a high-profile column.

Players say they don't read newspapers but they do.

I learned to stop paying attention to the media, particularly before matches, when I found myself believing stuff written by journalists who had never played the game at all, let alone at any reasonable level.

Everybody is entitled to an opinion, but when a player is low on confidence and scratching around for light, a long dark tunnel can become even longer on the back of ill-informed views. It is a problem multiplied today many times over through cyberspace and players with the downtime now to explore it.

If I were Fitzgerald, I would draw back from airing opinions publicly, let my rugby do the talking and confide only in those closest to me. In his case that would be his parents Des and Andrea, both of whom are former internationals in rugby and netball.

Des wasn't just a top-class prop, but he is one of the few ex-forwards I trust when it comes to his opinion on the game! Following the Italy game in Rome, Luke Fitzgerald took it upon himself to question the analysis of former Ireland full-back Conor O'Shea when he questioned his defensive positioning, when coming in for the Azzurri's second-half try.

I have two issues here. One, he was challenging the opinion of one of the most balanced and fair-minded pundits in the business, and secondly, it is pointless to react in this way, so why bother? When Ronan O'Gara famously took it upon himself to respond to criticism and write to Kevin Myers through the letters page in this newspaper, there could be only one winner and it sure wasn't Rog.

It is worth mentioning too that by going public on his desire to be the Ireland full-back, he is alienating himself from friends, fellow players and rivals for the position -- Rob Kearney, Geordan Murphy and Keith Earls, not to mention the fast-developing Felix Jones.


Professional rugby is a high-octane, high-adrenalin business. But instead of fuelling that pressure even further by raising public expectation in print, it is time to withdraw to your own thoughts, look at how you can further develop your game and let the rugby do the talking.

I have watched Luke develop through the underage grades playing at out-half, centre and full-back for Blackrock ... strangely enough, though, never on the wing. But for now wing should be Fitzgerald's position. He should focus on finding his form.

In 'Rugby World' Fitzgerald in a 'One Word' piece describes Declan Kidney as "astute", Brian O'Driscoll as "inspirational" and journalists as "dangerous".

I know the best is yet to come from this gifted player, and I believe he will be at his most effective when eventually wearing No 13. But for now can I suggest he refers to the words he has used in the article and apply them to himself.

Fitzgerald says he is more relaxed but recent form suggests otherwise. He is quite simply trying too hard and aiming to please too many people.

The formula is simple: less talk equals less pressure, which equals better form.

Take it from one who knows, and as your oul fella will definitely tell you, sometimes you sure as hell learn it the hard way.

Irish Independent

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