Tuesday 16 July 2019

Local hero Luke Fitzgerald preparing to shine on global stage

Fitzgerald will park residual GAA ambitions for a while as debut World Cup finally beckons

Luke Fitzgerald will hope to take his chance in the Ireland jersey during the World Cup warm-up games which start against Wales this Saturday
Luke Fitzgerald will hope to take his chance in the Ireland jersey during the World Cup warm-up games which start against Wales this Saturday
Seven-year-old Conor Saunders from Aghaboe with Topaz ambassador Luke Fitzgerald at the award-winning Topaz site in Ballacolla, Co. Laois, that was recently awarded the NACS Insight 2015 International Convenience Retailer of the Year award, beating off global competition to the prestigious prize
David Kelly

David Kelly

Maybe it was the looks of adulation peeping from the giddy gang of autograph hunters that prompted hazy memories of yore to swamp him, tugging at his sleeve to return once more.

The anticipation of new sporting memories prompted a recall of some old ones for Luke Fitzgerald in Cork last week. A return to sepia-tinted childhood in his home from home.

As he continues the arduous journey towards what he hopes will be, at the peak of a brilliant but often fractured career, the zenith of a debut World Cup at the grand old age of 28, he retraced some familiar, if faint, remnants of a distant past.

For Cork, specifically the suburb of Rochestown, was where Fitzgerald spent so many blissful years coming of age when his family moved there, when he was five.

"It's funny, I finished our open day and kind of got drawn back," he says wistfully. "I just wandered around all the places I remembered as a kid. My old Gaelscoil, Scoil an Athar Tadhg. Douglas GAA club. Jeez, the memories came flooding back. . ."

Cork Con were part of that childhood, too, ensuring that his rugby lineage - father Des played in two World Cups - would be maintained. But summer days unfurled his burgeoning passion for Gaelic games.

So much so that, upon his return to Dublin as a ten-year-old, he almost abandoned the sport that would eventually make his name.

"I loved it," he recalls fondly of those nascent steps amongst Corkonian Gaels. "In Dublin, it became more serious because I became disenchanted with rugby. I felt I wasn't really learning anything - now you're only a kid so you're impatient!

"But it's intense to you at that stage, and Dublin hurling was starting to re-organise when I was coming up through juvenile.

"It was a very close call. If I'd gone to second level at Colaiste Eoin (instead of Blackrock College), who knows what would have happened? I'd see my old schoolmates from Scoil Naithí in Ballinteer carrying a hurl everywhere, every day. That could easily have been me."

The one-time fledgling midfielder-cum-half-forward recalls some intense battles with Ballyboden's Shane Durkin, in particular.

Fran O'Dwyer was a significant coaching influence, and he played football, too, under Ray Foley and John O'Brien.

Current Dublin star Cian O'Sullivan, a fellow Blackrock alumnus, remains a good friend and the prospect of renewing his vows of devotion to our national games is much more than merely notional.

He returned to Sandyford-based Olaf's in May to issue a pep talk to the U-16s before their county final - cruelly, perhaps inevitably, they were undone by Ballyboden. The itch remains unscratched.

"Once I finish, I might go back. Cian is a fantastic athlete and I wouldn't be able to play as I am now because I'd need to change my make-up completely. They're different to us as rugby players," he says.

"But I've told John I'd love to play up there, at whatever level. You'd think to think you'd be able to play and mix it up with the senior lads. We'll see what happens. But I had some great times. . ."

From carefree summers to carefully planned summers, Fitzgerald is now targeting a World Cup, the only event missing from a glittering cv over-loaded with European, Grand Slam and League titles as well as a Lions tour.

It still seems impossible to conceive that a series of cruel misfortunes have until now prevented him from making an appearance in the game's global showpiece.

"This summer definitely has a different feel to it. You're thinking you're 32 the next time it comes around. Now I'm at my peak, it's a big chance, it's where you want to be," he says.

"It's all guns blazing, I've made a lot of sacrifices, cutting weight, going to bed hungry, waking up at 5am feeling hungry. It makes it easier having the grand vision in your head. It's such a big event."

Propped

Des and Andrea - a netball international herself - were expecting Luke while the 1987 World Cup took place; Fitzgerald Snr then propped for Ireland in the famous World Cup clash with Australia at Lansdowne Road in 1991.

"Yeah, it would be nice to complete the family circle. But boy were they different times!" says Luke.

His flirtation with Gaelic games didn't survive being hothoused in rugby; grainy VHS videos of his dad's 34-cap career accompanied the child's growing years.

When the Irish team were based in Wicklow, the young Paul Wallace and Keith Wood would regularly pitch up in Enniskerry to bend the ear of scrummaging maestro Des.

"It's great for people to see a guy from the telly and be able to talk to him. I had that access to the team with my dad. I remember meeting Woody and Wally, they were huge moments for me. I always remember what it was like meeting players," recalls Fitzgerald.

Brendan Mullin was a key influence; he remembers watching agape as the freakishly fast centre almost caught Emile Ntamack in the 1995 World Cup - his first real engagement with the competition.

Awestruck, he remembers meeting Mullin at the time; recently, Gavin Mullin, Brendan's son and a decent midfielder in his own right at schools level, has had the same feeling meeting Fitzgerald. Circles completing all the while.

He could see it in the faces of the kids in Cork too as Ireland's World Cup build-up continues apace, a new collection of fans getting close to heroes who are, effectively, just as local as any GAA player.

"It's great for them to have this kind of access while we can do it and just be chatting to the kids, be it Galway or Cork or Dublin," Fitzgerald says.

"We're in a professional bubble so it's nice to have that contact. We're like the GAA in many respects, I do think that.

"Someone asks you a favour, you just do it and you're not afraid to ask them. I don't know if it works the same in other countries. We're a tight-knit country and that helps us on the world stage."

The expectations, typically, have lurched from anxious anticipation to elevated enthusiasm.

"Everyone wants us to do well, whether we over-hype it or not I don't know," says Fitzgerald. "It's a nice place to be, coming in after playing consistently good rugby for a couple of years.

"But it's a new season and the challenge is to reproduce it again. A lot of stuff off the field is capable of being reproduced. But it will be tough.

"France will have their players together for a long period of time which they don't do in the Six Nations. But everyone is wishing us well.

"Even the Munster fans are wishing me well, even though I'm competing with their players to get into the team. So the country is behind us as a squad."

Fitzgerald seems less hassled now about where he plays in Joe Schmidt's team. He is desperate to play in a World Cup.

"I'm flying it now," he says, having completed the latest in a series of seemingly life-long surgical procedures, this time on his shoulder. "Fingers crossed I'll do contact this week, then I'll be available for selection."

A local hero bound for a world stage.

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