Saturday 18 November 2017

Luke Fitzgerald sets sights on O'Driscoll's No 13 jersey

Luke Fitzgerald was in the Aviva Stadium for the launch of a new competition on the Guinness Plus App
Luke Fitzgerald was in the Aviva Stadium for the launch of a new competition on the Guinness Plus App
David Kelly

David Kelly

"They don't get me to do talks about rugby anymore, just about injuries!"

It's a measure of the place where Luke Fitzgerald is now, particularly when you know the places that he has been to before, and all those places he still so desperately wants to reach, that there exists enough light to shine so much humility.

Greatness in life can, after all, only begin to be touched when one also hauls a similar weight in humility. Well, enough to be going on with anyway.

After all, this is a man who scoffs at the usual pre-Six Nations dance of the cliche – "Of course I want to win it all!" – one who, despite all the ruinous ravages of injuries sufficient to destroy a lesser man, still craves one jersey above all other.

Number 13 is so unlucky in other fields; in Irish rugby, it has attained a mythical grace. Fitzgerald is just one of many desirous of assuming the centre of attention when life resumes next September without Brian O'Driscoll, to whom so many in the sport throw their lonely eyes.

"There are definitely improvements to be made in my game to help me there," says Fitzgerald, enjoying such a run of form, free from injury, that he has already been pencilled in for the equally fitting 11 jumper against Scotland in this Sunday's Dublin championship opener.

"I'd say a big part of it is getting some time at 13 and making decisions under pressure. That's a strength of my game.

"In attack what I have learnt in the last month or two or three is you've got to trust the things I am good at and maybe I was focussing on trying to be a bit too much like what Brian does really well. We're very different players.

"You can't be what you are not. You've got to be good at what you are good at; that's not to say you can't improve different aspects, but I would say time in there is key.

"What I would really like to do if I got some games would be to show him the games and say, 'What do you think, what small things would you try and improve or change here'.

"You can add small bits but you can't change who you are really. You've got to a certain position and it is trust in yourself that got you there."

That he may do all this in the blue of Leinster – and not the red of Munster – also owes some debt to O'Driscoll, with the younger Blackrock College man noting wryly that the early signs are positive in terms of the older man's shimmy into the agent business when he discards his gilded boots next May.

"I haven't had much conversation with Brian about the positions but he was a big reason why I stayed in Leinster," Fitzgerald reveals.

"Any time I ever asked him for advice he has been excellent.

"I asked him about the merits of going down to Munster. I was very impressed by Rob Penney.

"I thought he was a really nice guy and it seemed like he had a bit of a vision for going forward. And you can see that, they are playing pretty good stuff.

"He (O'Driscoll) was really honest. For a guy who has been at the club a really long time it would be easy to get caught up in the 'Blue Army' thing but he didn't. I was very impressed with that."

Fitzgerald's contract negotiations, as he has previously said elsewhere, didn't shower him with love on either occasion but he has learned, as he may still do with his desire to end up in a 13 shirt, to lessen the tug on his mind of things that remain beyond his control.

RISK

After all he has been through – his doctors told him straight up that returning to play professional rugby was a risk to his immediate well-being – nothing that has happened or may happen to him seems such a shock anymore.

He has witnessed it all in a sporting life that at once has seemed to accelerate with bewildering speed and then freeze motionless for months at a time – eye-gouging on a Lions tour, the dreaded ACL, a potential move to Munster, premature retirement whispering in his ear, Heineken Cup glory.

And, of course, Grand Slam glory.

But, as he contemplates his first potentially injury-free run since that 2009 campaign, even the 26-year-old lifts the lid on hitherto unrevealed complications which accompanied that storied personal success.

For much of the week before Ireland's glorious liberation in Cardiff, Fitzgerald was on his back.

Indeed, he even travelled on the team bus incongruously lying down in the aisle, one side of his body gripped with sciatica.

"The day of the Captain's Run, I was trying to step off it but I was just falling over. So it wasn't looking good."

He made it through that day. And the next. Life has been constructed in a way that he now sees only hurdles that he can defy, rather than obstacles that can defy him.

"I've probably come to the understanding that I'm never going to be 100pc on the pitch. I'd say I do quite a bit of extra stuff compared to most guys, probably because I have to because I have more things to manage.

"It's frustrating never getting to 100pc but it's probably part of the job."

That is his life now. Being content with what he has, rather than being despondent with what he has not.

And, in such a way, Fitzgerald seems destined to give the best of himself in this Six Nations championship.

Irish Independent

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