Fitzgerald returns as Leinster seek early advantage

LUKE FITZGERALD plays his first competitive match in 10 months when Leinster open their Magners League campaign against Glasgow Warriors at Firhill tonight (7.05pm).

Fitzgerald damaged ligaments in his left knee during the second half of Ireland’s draw with Australia at Croke Park last November.

After a lengthy rehab and recovery period, the British and Irish Lions star featured in pre season friendly action for the province and, after no adverse reaction, is named at full-back for the trip to Scotland in a back division that also includes fellow international Shane Horgan.

Sean O’Brien has been given the rare responsibility of captaining a team in transition; albeit one that includes such important signings as Heinke van der Merwe, Ed O’Donoghue and Isaac Boss.

Jamie Heaslip is set to play his first game since his dismissal in Ireland’s defeat to New Zealand in June and he will form a back-row partnership with O’Brien and Dominic Ryan, with Scotland international second-row Nathan Hines partnering O’Donoghue at second row.

Even though this is a relatively new team, it will not lack experience against a Warriors side missing skipper Alistair Kellock, Chris Cusiter and Johnnie Beattie, all injured, and Kelly Brown, who left during the summer for Saracens.

According to Hines, the loss of four such hard-nosed Glasgow operators offers an opportunity to the young Irish players.

“It’s a chance for the younger guys to come through and try to claim a scalp. We finished top of the table last year and it’s their first home game so there’s pretty much everything to play for.

“They have some good players. Max Evans is threatening out wide, (Bernardo) Stortoni is solid under the high ball at full-back and Richie Vernon, the ex-Sevens player who plays in the back-row, is quick and runs good lines.

“It’s quite difficult to analyse teams at this time of year. In my department we try to look at line-outs and try and work out how weak sides are in certain areas, but obviously we haven’t much to go on so it’s a bit like backyard footy.

“The two pre-season games were good preparation for the start of the league proper and obviously they count, but you’re not playing for points in pre-season. Historically we haven’t done very well in Glasgow so it’s an opportunity for everyone to get a scalp early on.

“Leicester was an improved performance compared to how we did against Wasps. We would have liked to have made bigger strides forward, but as long as we go to Glasgow and produce what we can do on the training pitch and come away with a win, then it doesn’t really matter what happens in pre-season.”

With Glasgow’s injury problems well-documented, coach Sean Lineen has been impressed with the application of some of his younger charges, particularly Richie Gray, whose task it is to fill the void left by Kellock.

“Richard knows that Ali is out for a while so he’s really taking that mantle,” said Lineen, “He and Tom Ryder are forming a really good second row combination and they have a chance to establish themselves.”

Glasgow’s crowds haven’t been anything close to those enjoyed by Irish and Welsh clubs, where average attendances are in excess of 8,000, but they are improving and the coach commented: “We had 2,500 people at our pre-season game which has never been done before, so we’re obviously capturing peoples’ imagination to have that number at a friendly. They made a lot of noise and that’s really important. I hope give them reason to do that again.”

Pictured are Fitzgerald, TG4 rugby presenter Maire Treasa Ni Dhubhghaill and the Magners League Cup at the launch of the TG4 autumn schedule 2010.

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