Wednesday 19 December 2018

'I was jealous of Limerick lads who won, I played with loads of them' - Stephen Fitzgerald

Hurling background has made this year special but Daragh Small hears how this full-back from Ardnacrusha is striving for his own glory in red

Stephen Fitzgerald at work in training. Photo: SPORTSFILE
Stephen Fitzgerald at work in training. Photo: SPORTSFILE

Daragh Small

The clocked ticked into the 80th minute when Joe Canning stood over a free at Croke Park on August 19, and on the opposite side of the country Stephen Fitzgerald was almost in tears, with his head stuffed into a pillow.

It was happening all over again, or so he thought.

Just like 1994 when Offaly caught fire to overturn a five-point deficit with five minutes to go, and claim a sensational 3-16 to 2-13 All-Ireland final win over Limerick.

Limerick had not won the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 45 years but after Shane Dowling's 68th-minute strike, they were eight points up with two minutes of normal time remaining.

But Conor Whelan and Canning both scored goals before the Portumna sharp-shooter stepped up for a potential sucker-punch leveller from between his own 45 and 65-metre line.

"I was in such shock when Joe Canning scored the penalty because everybody was pretty sure they had the match won when Shane Dowling scored the goal," said Fitzgerald.

"But a small part of me was just like Galway could come back. I always remember my dad talking about the last time Limerick should have won the All-Ireland final against Offaly.

"The captain was nearly preparing the speech on the field because they were so far ahead. The thought of Offaly actually coming back was near impossible, but they did it.

"When Galway had their free at the end to level it I had my head in the pillow thinking they were going to."

But Canning's free fell short and the whole of Limerick rejoiced. Fitzgerald would have given anything to be there but he had to mind the family shop. He watched the game from the comfort of his girlfriend's house instead.

Brought up on the Clare-Limerick border in Ardnacrusha, Fitzgerald is a former Limerick minor hurler as is his brother Conor (currently in Connacht), while his father John won a minor All-Ireland with the Treaty County and was on the senior panel too. "It was just unbelievable when Limerick won. I rang my parents straight away but they didn't answer. They were obviously enjoying their celebrations," said Fitzgerald.

"I presume both of them were wailing because my parents are pretty soft like that. My dad would be tough. But whenever we would win a final or a big match my mom would be running over giving us hugs and my dad would be there crying.

Celebrations

"I remember going to the Munster Heineken Cup celebrations when I was younger. My father's friend organised it and I was right up at the top. I will never forget it.

"The whole city nearly shut down. It was same if not more this time around. It was because Limerick had won an All-Ireland this time.

"With Munster it's the whole province but for Limerick being the home city it was just insane after the hurling. I've never seen anything like it and I don't think anyone has in a long time.

"I was extremely jealous of the lads who won. I had played with loads of them. Then watching them winning it was great but I never thought I would rather play hurling than rugby."

The 22-year-old full-back is now firmly rooted in the Munster rugby ranks, and he will look to push on after he played 80 minutes for the 'A' side in their 40-29 Celtic Cup win over Scarlets A at Irish Independent Park last weekend.

Fitzgerald has played seven times for the senior side since his debut in 2015-'16 and last season he was rewarded with a new development deal. "It was always my thing to play for Munster and be the starting full-back. It's great to stay on with them and hopefully I'll be here for the rest of my career," he explained.

The former Ardscoil Rís student was a star for the Ireland U-20s and made his debut for Munster against Ospreys in September 2015.

He made two appearances in his first season and five last time out, but in 2016-'17 injury meant he didn't have a chance to excel in a matchday 23.

"I was on the bench against Cardiff but never came on. Then the next week I went out and just tore a load of ligaments in my ankle," said Fitzgerald.

"Then I had to get an operation on that. I came back after three or four months. It was just never 100pc.

"I played for the rest of the year in the B&I Cup and I wasn't playing that well. "I had to have another operation on it because it wasn't really that right. Thankfully now it's been good ever since.

"If I had got on against the Blues that time, I might not have not injured my ankle the following week, but I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason.

"It has made me tougher so I wouldn't be that disappointed."

Fitzgerald bounced back last season and now in 2018-19 he feels he can challenge the likes of Andrew Conway for a place in the starting 15.

He still needs to build on his experience but the raw potential is there and it won't be long before Johann van Graan sees him as a viable option on a regular basis.

For now he is learning off of a very young coaching ticket and being able to relate to backs and attacking coach Felix Jones has really helped.

Transition

"I played my first match for Munster with Felix. We all had to experience that transition of him crossing over," said Fitzgerald.

"But he has been unbelievable. He is so dedicated and passionate about it. He has put in so much hard work behind the scenes.

"Every little detail is ticked off. At the end of the day he is such a competitive person and he just wants to win.

"He has been unbelievable for me helping with small things in defence and attack. He has played in my position and taught me a huge amount.

"It has changed a bit with him becoming a coach. But he is still really easy to talk to.

"I feel really comfortable that I can always go up and talk to him."

Irish Independent

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