Sunday 21 January 2018

'I need to impress while guys are away in November'

After a stop-start debut season and injury woes, the full-back is eager to catch the eye

Stephen Fitzgerald aims to make his mark after a staggered start Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Stephen Fitzgerald aims to make his mark after a staggered start Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Daragh Small

Bedford Blues, Nottingham and Ospreys Select will provide the opposition for Munster 'A' in this season's B&I Cup, and the reigning champions will be out to prove their point once again.

Munster begin their campaign away to the Welsh this weekend, and players like full-back Stephen Fitzgerald, will be desperate to lay down a marker for future involvement with the first team.

The 21-year-old made his debut for Munster on September 15, 2015 after a blistering first half to the year - he had scored five tries in just eight appearances for the Ireland U-20s between the Six Nations and World Rugby U-20 Championship.

Fitzgerald played 80 minutes on Munster's left wing and duly dotted down away to Ospreys at Liberty Stadium. Just over a month later he lined out on the right wing but was taken off after an hour against Scarlets.

"I wanted more and more game-time back then. I played against Ospreys that night and I was happy with that, especially scoring the try. Then I played against Scarlets a couple of weeks after and didn't have my best game. I didn't play for the rest of the year," says Fitzgerald.

The Ardnacrusha native had a scintillating start to his Munster career but when he had hoped to push on with the first team, instead, the rest of his season was spent playing with the 'A' side in the B&I Cup, and for Shannon in the Ulster Bank League.

Fitzgerald also had dreams of making it big at the start of last season but that's when his injury struck. He lined out for Shannon at home against Ballymena in Division 1B of the Ulster Bank League on September 17, but left the field injured during that 25-19 defeat at Thomond Park.

"The ankle injury happened in the third week of the season. I tried to carry the ball and sidestepped someone but he lunged to tackle me and put all of his weight through the side of my leg," says Fitzgerald.

"It just buckled and my syndesmosis in the front of it was completely torn and then a few other ones. I got an operation a week after that."

At first, Fitzgerald was unaware of the seriousness of the injury, but it dawned on him just moments before he went under the knife, and made for an interesting few minutes of soul-searching.

"It was about two minutes before I went in. They were putting all of the drips into my arm at the time and that's when I started to think about it," says Fitzgerald.

"As a professional athlete, it's never good to get an operation. But the way rugby is now and how physical it is, people don't get through a full career without having one.

freak-out "It wasn't until I was actually on the table about to get the surgery that the thoughts started to go through my head.

"I was thinking, 'What if something goes wrong? What about if I don't get back the same way I was?' At the time I was just having a small bit of freak-out but the drugs kicked in and I was out cold shortly after."

Fitzgerald had lined out on the replacements' bench against Cardiff, but that injury put paid to his chances of any involvement in 2016-'17.

"That injury destroyed my season. When I came back I wasn't 100 per cent and I was playing through the pain," he says.

But after a long stint on the sidelines Fitzgerald returned to make a massive contribution for the Munster 'A' team as they won the B&I Cup for just the second time in their history last April.

He played five games in the competition and scored a try against Doncaster, while his side ended up defeating Jersey Reds 29-28 in a thrilling final.

Fitzgerald soon headed for a change of scenery and Bond University on Australia's Gold Coast at the start of the summer, and although an injury cut that short too, he came back to Ireland refreshed and ready to hit the ground running in 2017-'18.

The Munster back-three depth has never looked so good, but he is keeping his hopes up, and with inspirational figures like Alex Wootton providing the competition, Fitzgerald has the perfect role model.

"I had lunch with Dave Kilcoyne and Mike Sherry the last day and they were telling me how the last time they won the B&I Cup, the majority of those players are starting for Munster now. It shows when you see how successful they went on to be, you would hope that the guys who were involved last season could do the same," adds Fitzgerald.

"It's ridiculous the depth we have in the back three at the moment. Earls just came back, Zebo, Sweets is doing so well and obviously Alex Wootton and Andy Conway have been some of the best players for Munster this year.

"In training you are treating it like a match because you are going up against players who are playing really well.

"Every time you train well against them it gives you a lot of confidence.

"From my point of view, I want to play as many games for Munster as I can this season. We are going into the European and B&I Cup block now so hopefully if I can put in a few good performances there, and I can get involved with the first team soon.

"A lot of the guys will probably head to the Autumn Internationals with Ireland, and there should be a few places up for grabs.

"I need to impress then while the guys are away."

Irish Independent

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