Boy wonder Fitzgerald ready for centre stage

IT’S four days before he wins his fifth cap and just his second full start, and Luke Fitzgerald is in a corner of the team hotel, fielding questions from a phalanx of journalists, the majority New Zealanders.

To the local press, he is the biggest story in the Irish camp. They view him as the new Brian O’Driscoll. Earlier in the day, O’Driscoll revealed he sees some of his younger self in Luke. But the Irish captain admitted he didn’t have Fitzgerald’s confidence, evident here as he handles the media in Rugby Central.

Rugby dreams will not get any bigger for Fitzgerald than those he is about to realise this weekend at the Westpac Stadium in Wellington: a test match in an Ireland shirt alongside his mentor, O’Driscoll, and against a team he has always held in high esteem.

Fitzgerald has dreamed of an occasion like Saturday. One All Black narrative included the day his Dad, Des Fitzgerald, a prop of renown, replaced Nick Popplewell against the All Blacks at Lansdowne Road in 1989. The outcome was familiar for Irish rugby — the All Blacks, World Cup winners two years earlier, ran out 23-6 winners, though a plucky Ireland side were in with a shout at the break trailing 13-6.

“Growing up, I was always a big fan of New Zealand rugby,” Fitzgerald said. “Dad played against them once or twice and he was always a big advocate of how they played the game. They always seemed a step or two ahead.

“They play a great brand of rugby — fast and exiting with quality players. It’s great to be playing against them.”

Naturally, the All Blacks he was drawn most to played in his favourite position, centre. “I remember Walter Little, in the centre — he was a great player. I know (Frank) Bunce played at 12. They were fantastic players and I learnt a lot watching those guys.

“Of recent All Blacks I think Conrad Smith is a really good player. Tana Umaga was fantastic to watch as well.”

It remains to be seen if New Zealand are still one or two steps ahead of every other nation. “I hope they’re not too far ahead on Saturday!” Fitzgerald quips. “But I do think they are a quality nation rugby-wise. For a good team to play a great one is a good thing.”

But closer to home, he says, there will be no one better to be standing beside, either for the Haka or when kick-off arrives, than O’Driscoll.

“He’s one of the best centres in the world. He is a fantastic player as well as a great leader. His work ethic probably goes unseen — they’re the things that rub off on young players like myself.”

In his second season as full time professional with Leinster, Fitzgerald has occupied the wing or full back positions more often than either of the centre slots. He played pre-season at 13 and manned the midfield for just two Magners League games. He won a Leinster Senior Schools medal in March 2006 and made his Ireland senior debut eight months later against the Pacific Islanders. The boy wonder, though, has had to bide his time on the international stage. He came on as a replacement late in the second test against Argentina last summer, was cut from the World Cup squad, while he made his Six Nations debut as replacement against Wales last March. He followed this up with an early appearance off the bench against England for the injured Geordan Murphy in the last game of the 2008 Six Nations.

And while he is picked at first centre on Saturday, Michael Bradley has given him and O’Driscoll the licence to inter-change.

The biggest test awaits Fitzgerald, but he was born for days like Saturday.


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