Saturday 18 November 2017

Tony Ward: Fitzgerald's best is yet to come

Luke Fitzgerald
Luke Fitzgerald
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Relief for Leinster, disappointment for Munster. That pretty much sums up the general reaction to the news that Luke Fitzgerald has agreed a new two-year deal with the former, bringing to an end speculation of a possible move to the latter.

Given my close involvement with schools rugby down through the years I get to see a fair section of emerging underage talent. Some truly outstanding youngsters have come through the system and, while not all have made it to the next level, of those who have, certainly Anthony Foley, Neil Francis, Eric Miller, Gordon D'Arcy, Keith Earls, Victor Costello, Brendan Mullin, Moss Finn, Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney and Hugo McNeill represent a smattering of those blessed with natural talent, visible from a very young age.

If pushed to identify one forward who excelled, I would say that despite the athleticism of a young Francis or the power and strength, not to mention try-scoring ability, of a developing Costello, it was Miller in his days at Wesley who most smacked of the real deal.

Behind the scrum, I would be equally emphatic. From the time I first saw him at out-half on the Blackrock Juniors as an U-14, Fitzgerald had the lot. Between 2003 and 2006 he played in four successive Leinster finals, winning three – Junior in '03 and Senior in '04 and '06 with only defeat to Belvedere in the decider in between costing him the remarkable feat of three SCT medals in a row.

Peak

In those senior years his positioning varied between centre and full-back but mainly it was in midfield that he operated at the peak of his powers.

Such versatility served him well for the professional game, although it means he no longer operates in those positions for Leinster and Ireland.

For the record, in that '06 final (in which they beat St Michael's) 'Rock fielded a back three of Fitzgerald in the last line alongside Niall Morris (now at Leicester) on the right and Vasily Artemyev (Northampton) on the left. If there has been a better attacking unit at schools level I sure can't recall it.

For Fitzgerald it's been a rocky, injury-plagued road to the point where, at 25 – and despite already amassing 26 Ireland caps, almost a hundred appearances for Leinster plus a Lions tour (to South Africa in '09) including a Test cap (remember Schalk Burger's eye gouge in the second Test in Pretoria?) – the feeling is still very much of potential unfulfilled.

I am in no doubt that his most effective position is in midfield – outside-centre ideally – but given the stop-start nature of his career, on the back of incessant injury, I believe the time is right to focus on reclaiming the left-wing slot for Leinster and see where, with a half-decent run, his still hugely promising career takes him.

Whereas I do worry for Earls (a brilliant underage prospect in his senior cycle at St Munchin's) in terms of falling between stools, I have no such fear for Fitzgerald – as a naturally left-sided player he fits comfortably when wearing that No 11 shirt for province or country.

By contrast Earls, much like Andrew Trimble, Fergus McFadden and to a lesser extent Craig Gilroy, is stifled when filling in wide on the left.

Unfortunately for Earls too, his form, when given the opportunity to play in his favoured centre position at the highest level, has not hit the standard required. However, unlike most, I wouldn't totally write him off just yet.

Next to Simon Zebo, Fitzgerald is the most comfortable fit on the left wing. So where to now? Putting myself in Fitzgerald's frustrating position, I would have two main objectives.

First and foremost would be getting this latest set-back (cruciate tear) 100pc right.

Not until he knows he is truly ready must he dare contemplate coming back. And let me add at this point, I have grave suspicion as to the effect Jonny Sexton rushing back from a hamstring tear had on this tendon issue now.

Ray Moran is the acknowledged expert in the area and, having examined the injury at the Sports Surgery Clinic, is happy that with the right period of rest and rehabilitation Fitzgerlad will make a full recovery.

Hence Leinster acting as swiftly as they did when negotiating a further two-year deal in the face of growing interest from Munster.

While Munster might have lost out on this occasion, I wouldn't rule out the switch further down the road, depending on how the next couple of years in his disrupted career pan out.

Secondly, and of equal importance, for the immediate future, Fitzgerald's sole focus should be on the left wing and on being the best he can be in that position for Leinster. Get that bit right and the clash with Zebo for the Ireland left-wing slot will follow as a matter of course.

I would like to think a return at some stage to centre will materialise for province (whether that be in blue or red) and country but for now let's get body and head working in tandem.

New contract signed, prognosis good, recuperation under way. Beyond that – 'Que Sera, Sera'. But let no one be in any doubt, for Luke Matthew Fitzgerald, the best is yet to come.

Irish Independent

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