‘Class act’ Luke hopes pain is past

Luke Fitzgerald was still five days short of his 19th birthday when he made his senior debut for Leinster.

Full Ireland honours followed two months later and a long career of unending highs seemed assured.

The reality hasn’t been so straightforward.

True, the Blackrock boy has since gone on to win league and European medals with his province, played every game of the 2009 Grand Slam and pulled on the famous Lions jersey in a Test in South Africa in 2009.

Yet, for every high there has been a low. At 27, he has yet to experience a Rugby World Cup, for instance, and only 26 Ireland caps have been collected since his first as injury insisted on plaguing him with a cruel regularity.

Jamie Heaslip, who made his international bow against the Pacific Islands on the same day as Fitzgerald, has amassed 40 caps more. Heaslip is a freak of medical nature given his light injury history, but such a disparity in numbers paints a clear picture.

Thankfully, there seems to be daylight ahead.

Fitzgerald returns to action tomorrow at the Stade Pierre Antoine for the first time since he put in an 80-minute shift against Munster last March. The seven months in between must have been torture: even for a man used to the monotony of rehab.

Week after week, Leinster doled out dribbles of information on a problem that incorporated his pelvis, groin and abs and more than once his name appeared on the list of 23 players on match day only to be erased before kick-off.

Hope and despair. Hope and despair. On it went.

“We’ve been really patient with him. We’ve given him the opportunity to get his body right and time to get his head right,” said Leinster’s head coach Matt O’Connor. “He’s trained incredibly well over the last two weeks. He’s a class act. A quality footballer.”

Fitzgerald’s return – in the absence of any more last-minute stand-downs – would be one of the more pleasing sights of the season. Not just because of his medical history, or his likeability, but the tools he brings to the trade for club and country.

“I always say rugby is a team game but, with him, it can be an individual game,” said Heaslip who also toured with Fitzgerald with the Lions five years ago. “He is one of those players who can open and unlock a defence.

“He has a footballing brain, a great set of skills. He is one of the few players who can keep his speed when he changes angles and, in defence as well, you never really worry when you have Lukey outside you.”

O’Connor was equally effusive, not just in terms of the player’s on-field abilities, but the strength of character shown during the drawn-out recovery period when more than a few people were wondering whether his very career might be in jeopardy.

In fairness to Leinster, they stood by their man throughout all the setbacks, especially in 2012 when he was also injured and his central IRFU contract wasn’t renewed, leaving his province to step up to the plate.

That said, nobody is claiming he is fully out of the woods just yet with O’Connor explaining yesterday that his training and playing volumes will continue to be monitored for the next 12-18 months.

Everything that can be done is and will be done to ensure the troublesome injury doesn’t flare up again, but no-one knows if he will be able to play week on week just yet and the few days after the Castres game should tell a few stories.

“That’s the reality of it, because he hasn’t been involved in the rugby environment so we don’t know what he can cope with because he is doing so much away from the programme in relation to getting his groin right,” said the coach.

“We have to manage the total output he can deal with. From a training sense, a rehab sense and a playing sense we have to make sure that he isn’t overloaded and has any setbacks.

“The physical bit is one thing but we need to manage the mental side of that in relation to how many times you can get yourself up to the rigours of the rehab programme that he has gone through.”

You can only wish him well.


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