Guy Easterby believes Luke Fitzgerald is a front-runner to take over the fabled number 13 jersey for club and country when Brian O’Driscoll finally calls time on his playing days next May.
It is seven years now since Fitzgerald made his senior Test debut, against the Pacific Islands, and he has since delivered superb performances for his club, his country and, in 2009, the British and Irish Lions.
Yet he has suffered a litany of long-term injuries that have hurt his career to such an extent that he has still to make a World Cup squad and missed out on some big club days such as the 2012 Heineken Cup final.
The Blackrock man has played at full-back, on the wing and in the centre for Ireland but his country’s need is unquestionably greatest in the midfield where O’Driscoll and, further down the line, Gordon D’Arcy will need to be replaced.
And Fitzgerald hinted with his 27 minutes after replacing a concussed O’Driscoll last Sunday that the forgotten man of Irish rugby could well be up there with Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw as the successor to the current king.
“Can he be? Absolutely,” said Easterby. “He’s got the skills set for there. Defensively, he’s very sound. Physically, he’s really sound. He’s got a great passing game as well, great feet. He’s got everything that a top 13 needs.
“What he probably needs is some game-time there. He’s played a good bit on the wing throughout his career and a bit at full-back, as well as spending a bit of time at 13-stroke-12. He certainly has the ability to do it.
“We’re looking for a long-term successor to Brian (at Leinster) and Luke’s got to be right up there in terms of the queue behind him.”
Fitzgerald has completed only two 80 minutes for Leinster so far this season thanks to yet more injury woe but Easterby is confident the 26-year-old will be one of those returning from international to club duty this week.
Leinster will look to build on a five-game winning streak against the Scarlets at the RDS on Saturday but it remains to be seen how many of their 15 players who featured against New Zealand are good to go again.
Five — Rob Kearney, O’Driscoll, Mike Ross, Devin Toner and Jamie Heaslip — started all three November Tests and are unlikely to feature with O’Driscoll (concussion) and Kearney (ribs) among those most in need of down time.
The challenge for coach Matt O’Connor is how best to reintegrate his international members given Leinster face a difficult trip to Franklin’s Gardens to play Northampton Saints in the Heineken Cup seven days later.
“In the coach’s first year, it makes it difficult because you are trying to get a bit of continuity and a bit of consistency into your performance,” said Easterby who also spoke glowingly of recent Irish displays from Jack McGrath and Devin Toner.
“On the other hand, you have to give great credit to the lads that have been here. We’ve gone away to the Dragons and away to Treviso (and won both), two teams who were less affected than us by international call-ups.”
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