Saturday 18 November 2017

Fitzgerald: It's not down to luck - I deserve it

Flying winger Luke Fitzgerald vows to 'create opportunities' on return to Ireland team after nightmare four years of injury

David Kelly

David Kelly

"JESUS!" Forgive the minor blasphemy, but for many Luke Fitzgerald's return to international rugby must feel like the second coming.

Conor Murray, as dutifully media-trained as the modern professional comes, is rocked in his chair as we remind him that Luke Fitzgerald's last start for Ireland coincided with the scrum-half's Irish debut.

"Is it that long?" he asks after emitting his surprised sacrilege.

Murray has accumulated a career's worth of achievements since that World Cup warm-up in Bordeaux, including the appearance at a World Cup that Fitzgerald never had.

A Six Nations title and a Lions series win too but, pointedly, 34 international caps in a four-year span when a variety of job-threatening blows debarred Fitzgerald adding to his total of 27.

Fitzgerald has watched his career slowly drift by as the world turned without him. Never has the cliché been more appropriate.

Luke Fitzgerlad is all smiles at training
Luke Fitzgerlad is all smiles at training
Luke Fitzgerald leading the line in sprints

"This feels like my first cap," says the Leinster winger as he earns his first start since that August 2013 date against France.

In the preceding three years, he had enjoyed 20 starts as a fulcrum of Declan Kidney's Grand Slam-winning team, not to mention his pre-eminence on the 2009 Lions tour.


For every aborted attempt to write a new chapter since, there has been the temptation to close the book altogether in an all too public battle between the unbending will of his mind and the unforgiving frailty of his body.

"I was pretty close to retiring with major injuries," he tells us, it seems, for the umpteenth time after neck, glutes groin and hip problems. "I couldn't really see a way back and I couldn't figure out what the problem was."

Time to hum a different tune and not a moment too soon.

"I'd be lying if I didn't think I'd get in sooner," he says after Joe Schmidt's axe fell on the luckless Simon Zebo, prompting the 27-year-old's return for the first time since a fleeting glimpse when Ireland agonisingly lost to the All Blacks in November 2013.

"But from a coach's view, you have to be empathetic even though it's unbelievably hard when you're so vested. Changing a winning team is always tricky and the boys have been doing a really good job for a long while.

"I was close to the England game but Simon had a fantastic game that day. It was a tricky game last weekend, now I get the nod so there's a lot of responsibility to put in a big performance."

It is ironic to think that a player who, 12 months ago, many clamoured for to come into the side for his X-factor has now been supplanted by a player who many have also clamoured to come into the side for his X-factor.

Zebo rarely got a chance to work his attack from depth; the transformation into an aerial work-horse seemed to thieve him in other areas and Schmidt's reference to the player suffering a "niggle" seemed a tad stretched, even if his work-rate dropped noticeably last weekend, despite being serviced with lamentable ball.

"We just felt that Luke had trained really well," Schmidt explains a bit later in the day. "He had brought a real freshness and enthusiasm and we just felt that we tapered a little bit into that Wales game.

"We certainly didn't start the game with the same hunger and enthusiasm that we had against England. The first ball that went up in the air against England, it actually went a little bit far but we chased through and knocked them off it anyway, such was the energy.

"Whereas last week we were a lot more passive, I felt, in that first 20 minutes and it allowed Wales to exert themselves a little bit."

Fitzgerald has always adhered to the Schmidt work ethic; indeed he is arguably one of the best tacklers in the business.

But there will, in the context of last Saturday's myopia and the potential need to chase tries, be much more focus on Fitzgerald's dancing feet and blistering strength in the contact zone.

"I don't think I can do what Simon does," he demurs. "I can do what I do. I'm on the team to do that. Probably that lateral movement is the strongest part of my game.

"That footwork. Beating guys, drawing in defenders, creating opportunities for myself and for others. That's what I am in the team to do.

"Fifty per cent of the game is defence, is it not? So that's a huge part of the game for me and I feel like I'm really strong in that aspect. I can't try to be anything other than what I am."

Murray, still reeling from the earlier revelation, acquiesces. In training, when the 'reserves' are asked to mimic future opposition, Fitzgerald would display extraordinary ruses to utterly bamboozle the entire squad.

"Luke coming in is going to be really beneficial for us, as it was with Zeebs in the team," agrees Murray. "He's a similar player, he has that X-factor and a strong left foot so it should be a pretty seamless transition.

"The second XV run moves really well against us and put us under pressure and then Luke will pull something out of the bag that we wouldn't expect, some kind of X-factor, he'd beat a player one on one and get in behind and cause havoc - hopefully he can do a bit of that to the Scottish lads."

For now, cool hand Luke just wants to play; the World Cup may be in his sights but 80 minutes now is all that matters.

"I'm lucky to be in that team this weekend," he says. "It's any guy's dream to be involved in that starting XV. I say lucky, but I probably don't believe that. I've worked really hard to get back into this position. I feel vindicated after all that hard work.


"It's difficult when you're a million miles away and you're close to retiring, because you can't figure out injuries. So it's hard to say you're lucky to be in.

"I'm blessed to be in this position but I worked really hard and I'm delighted to get the opportunity.

"The World Cup is everyone's long-term goal. It's the cherry on top for anyone who writes their goals down. Short-term goal? It's playing well this weekend.

"It's too far away to be an audition just yet, there's an awful lot of rugby to be played in between then and now.

"I'm in a great position now. I feel like I really understand my body now and that, barring a bit of bad luck, I'm in a great position to really kick on.

"First things first, though. I have to put in a good performance this weekend for myself, the team and the squad to try and hang on to that jersey because the competition for those places is fierce."

Most people will include him in their prayers this weekend.

Irish Independent

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