Luke Fitzgerald vindicated after all the hard work

Jamie Heaslip has always stood as the most useful, and accurate, of barometers on those all-too-frequent occasions in the past when Luke Fitzgerald’s staccato Ireland career has been a topic of interest.

Luke Fitzgerald vindicated after all the hard work

The Leinster pair made their Test debuts against the Pacific Islands in November of 2006, since then Heaslip has added another 70 caps to his resumé, while Fitzgerald has managed just 26 more in between his various injury-enforced absences.

It’s a startling contrast.

Perhaps even more striking is the fact Fitzgerald will start for his country for the first time since appearing against France in a World Cup warm-up in Bordeaux in August of 2011 when he faces Scotland in Edinburgh tomorrow.

Think about that: almost four years of international rugby without a start.

Five times Fitzgerald made it on as a replacement since that night in the Chaban-Delmas, but the last of them was in November of 2013 against the All Blacks. Conor Murray has played 34 times in that same spell.

“That’s unbelievable,” said the Munster scrum-half who is just 18 months younger than the 27-year old. “He’s been through an awful lot. It seems to be injury after injury, get back after a three-month lay-off and then it’s a different one that crops up.

“It’s great to see him back. As Joe (Schmidt) said, he is the type of person that you can’t keep down. He’s always really, really positive. Even when he’s not involved, he’s really just pushing the lads in training, giving feedback and just being a good presence around the place.”

Brian O’Driscoll used to compare Fitzgerald’s nifty footwork to that of Geordan Murphy and the player himself, Schmidt, Murray and Cian Healy all spoke about those dancing feet when talk turned to the wing’s strengths yesterday.

“Yeah, that kind of X-factor thing? Yeah, absolutely,” said Murray. “When he’s been out of the team for the last four games he’s been in and around the squad and in the XV running plays against us (in training) and they run moves really well against us.

“They 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 on- on-one and get in behind and cause havoc. Hopefully he can do a bit of that to the Scottish lads.”

It would be easy to gloss over what it took for Fitzgerald to make it back to this stage. It was, after all, only earlier this season that there were strong rumours of a possible retirement as he struggled to shake off hip and abdominal injuries.

Healy spoke about how his clubmate clocked in on days off to rehab and that he worked on “small muscles I didn’t even know exist” in an effort to overcome his injury issues and relaunch a professional career that began long before his teens had ended.

“It’s fantastic,” the man himself said yesterday. “It’s any guy’s dream to be involved in that starting 15. I’m lucky to be in that team this weekend. 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.”

He was, he admitted again, close to retiring at more than one point, but when he speaks now it is about the future rather than the past and what he could still do in the half-a-dozen or so years he has left before his body or mind finally call time.

His form for Leinster as soon as he returned this season belied any injury issues, but he believes better again is to come and that he can finally begin to rack up the number of caps that would be some way commensurate with his talent.

It was unquestionably a hard call on Simon Zebo this week, but Fitzgerald’s struggles, his form and his undoubted class merited inclusion at some point in this Six Nations. It is, quite simply, great to see him back.

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