Fitzgerald continues his rugby education

IN 1984, at age 26, Des Fitzgerald won his first cap for Ireland, a losing debut against England, and went on to become almost an ever- present on the Irish team until his retirement in 1992, amassing 34 caps.

In November 2006, aged 19, his son Luke won his first Ireland cap, a win over the Pacific Islands, and has since won nine more. He’s been an ever-present through this year’s unbeaten Six Nations campaign, named again on the team to take on Scotland in Murrayfield tomorrow.

Des Fitz was a prop, albeit a mobile prop, especially back in the day — Luke Fitzgerald is a winger, a dazzler with verve and swerve.

“My mother might have had a bit more with me being out in the backs,” he explains, “I’m not built like my father, though he tells me there are similarities, he says he only put on the weight and shape for prop after he got to his later years in school — I was always on the smaller side.”

From a long time back it was obvious to all those around him that he was going to make it in sport. The question, however, was which sport? Des Fitzgerald is a Dubliner, but a change of job brought him to Cork and the young Luke spent his early years in that sports-mad city, turning his hand to a variety of sports, but to hurling and gaelic football especially.

“I was with Douglas, I actually met my old coach, Eddie Murphy, when I was down there last week (training with the Irish squad) — I owe a lot of thanks to those guys. I definitely think you benefit from playing football and hurling when you’re younger. It improves your football brain and it gives you a lot of skills, it helps you an awful lot with your fielding and your kicking. It gives you a good style and a good base to work with when you come in to play rugby.”

When he was ten, circumstances changed again and his father found himself back in Dublin, and Fitzgerald found himself with a choice — GAA or rugby. How close was the call?

“Close enough. I think a lot had to do with which school I went to. I was touch-and-go between Coláiste Eoin and Blackrock College — obviously I went to Blackrock College and went down a different path.

“Destiny, I suppose. I really loved the hurling and football, made a lot of very good friends from it, had a lot of good times, good memories. It was a tight call but rugby was always going to be the winner, with the family connection.”

As a matter of interest, when did he lose the Cork accent? “It filtered out over the years, I still had it when I came back to Dublin, I got some stick from the lads at school.”

That stick would have ended pretty quickly when they recognised the talent they had acquired, a talent that inspired Blackrock to two Senior Cup titles, in 2004 and 2006, with Fitzgerald winning his first full international cap later in 2006 — a phenomenal achievement.

So to 2009, and hard though it is to believe, 21-year-old Fitzgerald is now in his third season as an international and established as one of Ireland’s first-choice wingers.

Well, perhaps not established, certainly not after events of a few days ago when coach Declan Kidney shook up the Irish rugby scene with four changes to his starting XV for the game against the Scots, four changes from a side that had won three from three, with all four of those dropped impressing in those three matches.

Any possible complacency within the squad was blown away in that announcement and now there is no talk of Grand Slams, or of who might make the impending Lions tour.

“No, especially not after that; it’s not necessarily guys playing badly who are being dropped, it’s guys playing well – everyone is worried about just holding on to their positions on this team.

“I think everyone is well aware of how good everyone else is on the squad, how well everyone is playing, so this was always going to be a possibility. It’s always tough on a guy playing well to be dropped but that’s one of the side effects of playing with a team that itself is going so well.”

THAT, of course, will be music to the ears of Kidney. With talk in Ireland turning already to the admittedly mouthwatering prospect of a ‘Grand Finale’ against Wales on Saturday week, and speculation mounting about how many possible Lions Ireland will have in the June tour to South Africa, there was a real danger that Scotland would be overlooked.

To call the Scots a potential banana-skin is an insult; as their recent performance against France in Paris shows and as their near-win over South Africa last November showed, this is a Scottish side more than capable of turning Ireland over in Murrayfield. For Fitzgerald— for everyone involved with Ireland — it’s very much a case of keep your eyes on the prize, and the prize this weekend is a win over Scotland. Wales are not even on the horizon.

“It goes without saying, Wales hasn’t been mentioned at all this week. It’s been all Scotland, how to defend against their strengths, exploit their weaknesses.

“Declan is a great motivator, everyone is really looking forward to the game; there are no eyes beyond this, you have to give Scotland a huge amount of respect. They have a lot of very good players — Godman, Blair, the two Evans brothers are very dangerous runners. Danielli (facing Fitzgerald) is a load, a big man but can really move, got a fantastic try against Italy; he’s going to be very tough to play against – a good test, looking forward to it.

“Scotland play with a lot of passion, a lot of pride, they pose a lot of threats. We haven’t really got a great record in Murrayfield so we know how difficult it’s going to be.”


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