Luke Fitzgerald: There were definitely times when I lost hope
Fitzgerald's 2014 was wrecked by injury but things are looking up
LUKE FITZGERALD has been spending plenty of time on Lansdowne Road recently preparing himself for the day when his natural abilities on the rugby pitch will no longer pay the bills.
There must have been times when the Ireland international gazed up at the shimmering stadium that looms over the Institute of Public Administration where he is studying for a business degree and wondered if he'd be back on the field instead of being in the classroom.
The 2009 Lion is only 27, but the end loomed over him for much of 2014 as he struggled to come to terms with the latest setback in a long line of injuries.
A problematic groin/abductor muscle injury has plagued him all year, limiting his appearances and grinding down his self-belief. The cause appeared elusive and several comebacks were either short-lived or aborted, causing fears over his future to grow.
Now, however, he can reflect on four successive 80-minute outings and three games in the No 13 shirt that he once seemed destined to wear.
Fitzgerald has seen the light at the end of the tunnel and, having blinked his way through the uncertainty is now beginning to feel comfortable.
After months of uncertainty, he is starting to feel less like a patient and more like a rugby player again.
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"It's been a rough journey," he conceded. "What was great was the support in here (from the medical staff) never wavered.
"Guys were very patient in here with me because there was definitely times when I lost a bit of hope.
"I just thought 'I am doing three months of rehab here and I'm getting nowhere - I'm in a worse position than when I actually started'.
"I am absolutely delighted with the support I've received in here and the patience shown."
In particular, Fitzgerald was keen to praise the patience shown by his coach. Matt O'Connor grew weary of being asked about his winger's health towards the end of last season, but never pressurised the player himself into coming back earlier than he needed to.
"Matty has been fantastic. It has been a tricky time for him with injuries and he has been really, really, patient with me because there was a time I just said: 'listen, I can't come back in here. I'm banging my head against the wall in here and I'm going nowhere,'" Fitzgerald explained.
O'Connor is an increasingly unpopular figure around the RDS these days, with last weekend's defeat to Munster the latest disappointing showing from the three-time European champions.
While a sizeable contingent on the terraces have turned on the Australian, the dressing-room remains a source of real support for the coach and Fitzgerald came forward with a strong defence without even being asked.
"Having played under a few good coaches - Cheiks (Michael Cheika), he has done it pretty much everywhere he has gone and then Joe (Schmidt) who has been fantastic - I just think he (O'Connor) is a class act.
"He has been very unlucky. You look at (Isa) Nacewa gone, Leo Cullen gone, Drico (Brian O'Driscoll), (Johnny) Sexton - mainstays, no Sean O'Brien, Cian Healy. . . he won the league last year and lost to Toulon (in the Heineken Cup quarter-final).
"I'd say we are looking pretty short-staffed. If we come through this little period of games performing well and getting results I think we're in a pretty good spot.
"I just know from working every day with the guy, my own feeling is that he is really knowledgeable, a really, really good coach. He's very organised and I'm always very impressed with him.
"I understand the supporters' and the media's frustration in terms of results and that, but I just feel it's very hard for us to be giving out too much information about the guy when he is fantastic.
"I just think he's a really good coach and I really like him. I thought I played my best rugby under him last season."
Fitzgerald knows that only a combination of improved results and performances will ease the pressure on O'Connor's shoulders. Like most of his team-mates, he accepts that he didn't play well at Thomond Park, but feels that he's nearing the place where he can really add value behind the scrum.
"Hopefully, if I can get a good run of games together now. I feel like I'm in a position where there is a huge space for me to improve and I'm still playing decent enough," he said. "There is a good opportunity to reach that level, that place where every sportsman wants to get to, where you are performing to your potential.
"I'm at a stage now where we've got it to a nice place. I'm not saying I'm fully at 100pc. I would say I'm around 90-95pc. But what has most pleased me about that is that I feel I'm still playing pretty decent, bar the weekend.
"If anyone looked closely at that game, there are not many of us who could be happy with that. I still feel like I'm in a good place and I have it under control."
Much has been made of Leinster's lack of cohesion behind the scrum and, given he has spent time on the wing and at outside-centre since returning, Fitzgerald is better placed than most to understand what is going on.
And he believes that he and the rest of the outside backs must do more to help the half-backs.
"I was very disappointed with my own performance at the weekend. I know a lot of the guys felt that way, especially outside of our Nos 9 and 10," he said.
"The video doesn't lie, unfortunately, and you can't hide in there (during the review). There were a lot of opportunities out wide and we have to get the calls into these people and help them out, as it's an unbelievably tough job.
"Everyone is talking about these guys calling plays. . . great teams never have to call the plays. There is a reason that Leinster's back-play looked so good the last 10 years: Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Denis Hickie, Shane Horgan, any of those guys, get good information into those guys.
"Those guys shouldn't have to have too much thinking to do, just get the ball, they know the call and then they are looking for which is the right pass.
"We have to help them out. Jimmy (Gopperth) has taken an awful lot of flak, probably from guys not helping him out enough.
"There was a couple of really good meetings today, harsh, harsh meetings, but you need to have them when you're in tough spots and we're coming into a tough spot here, but hopefully we can get out of it with some good play and helping these guys out. They have the toughest job on the pitch."
Thankfully, Fitzgerald's focus is back on rugby after such a difficult year in which he contemplated the end.
Asked if he ever thought of jacking it all in and going off to save the world, he summed it all up with a wry smile: "I'm trying to save myself first to be honest."