With the likes of Simon Zebo, Andrew Conway and JJ Hanrahan to compete with, it hasn’t been easy for Stephen Fitzgerald to get a run in a Munster number 15 shirt.
So the talented full-back — who has impressed from his earliest days at Ardscoil Rís, through the Ireland 20s and Shannon seniors — is determined to make an impression in tomorrow’s Guinness PRO14 derby with Ulster at Thomond Park.
Tall, rangy, nimble and a natural footballer, the 22-year-old is one of several Munster squad members desperately in need of game-time.
“Obviously the strength in depth we have in the back three, my position, you have Zeebs and Andrew (Conway) and then JJ (Hanrahan), he has been playing there,” Fitzgerald said.
“Opportunities have been a bit limited but obviously when I do get the chance, I need to take it with both hands and make the most of it.”
Fitzgerald is typical of countless versatile Irish youngsters who made the grade at different sports before settling on one.
“For the first few years in Ard Scoil I was playing hurling and rugby and I didn’t know which one I was going to concentrate on. Obviously Ard Scoil play Harty Cup and I loved that and I was with the Limerick minors as well.
"I came to Munster U18s and then I was playing Senior Cup with Ard Scoil and I’ve just loved it ever since. We got to two finals and lost both but I think I made the right decision going for rugby. I was lucky I got to the academy straight out of school four years ago.
“I played Ireland U20s for my first year in here and made my debut the year after and then last year I had a bad ankle injury and I wasn’t getting selected. This year I’ve been lucky enough to play a few times. Hopefully it stays going like that.
“I’ve been knocking on the door but I seem to be getting a few opportunities now. I know Zeebs is leaving and that Mike Haley is coming in but all I can do is just keep playing as well as I can and then every time Johann gives me the chance that I take it.
Keith Earls has been a hero of Fitzgerald’s since his youngest days.
“I remember watching him in the senior cup final playing for Munchin’s and he won that match himself. He was that good.
“It’s the small things out on the pitch, the way I’m closing or the way I’m coming on to the ball or stepping and stuff like that, the small things that he’s been incredible helping me with.”
To qualify for the play-offs, Ulster need a bonus-point win at Thomond and require Glasgow to deny Edinburgh a point, but Fitzgerald is wary of letting Jono Gibbes’s side out of this tight corner.
“If they beat us with a bonus point we could end up playing them the week after in Thomond Park. And that’s the last thing you’d want because they’ll have all the confidence coming back here again.
If that scenario doesn’t materialise this will be Gibbes’ last game as head coach before returning to his roots in New Zealand. And the Kiwi is well aware how difficult it will be to prolong his stay.
“They’re a formidable opponent, a proud team down there, and whoever pulls on that red jersey down there, well, it’s a big challenge for us. You know, we had to regroup a little after Saturday, get a bit of energy back and save it up because it will be ferocious for sure on Saturday.
“But it is just good to be alive in the last game, to be honest. We have that, we had no margin of error and we managed to fight and scratch our way through and get ourselves in a position to put pressure on Edinburgh.
“To go to Munster in a position where there is still something to play for is great, because we have had a bit of adversity and a few bad results. Edinburgh at home, that one was pretty tough to take, and the two games following that were pretty disappointing for everyone.”
Munster’s PRO14 semi-final qualifier has been confirmed for Thomond Park on Saturday, May 5th at 3.15pm.
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