In as competitive an arena as the battle for places in Ireland’s backline at this World Cup, Luke Fitzgerald believes his resilience in overcoming a series of serious injuries gives him the mindset to thrive in the white heat of a Test match.
These are uncertain days for the players in Joe Schmidt’s squad as the head coach keeps them guessing on selection for Sunday’s Pool D clash with Italy at London’s Olympic Stadium. Yet having dealt with several long periods on the sidelines as his body has succumbed to serious injury and been forced to contemplate premature retirement, Fitzgerald, 28 feels he is a player for when the going gets tough.
“Definitely the journey shapes a lot of your mindset in these scenarios. I feel like you have an advantage in that if you do get setbacks ... mentally I know I can come back from things that seem maybe insurmountable to some people. I feel that’s a big advantage I have... my own belief in myself, what I’m capable of and what I bring to the table. They are strong things to have in the squad. I feel like I’m a guy you want in a tough situation in a game.
“The other attributes are if you look at defenders beaten in Heineken Cup and everything else I’m always one of the top guys there so...they are things I think I bring to the table that you like to think will impact selection.”
Fitzgerald feels he made the most of the opportunity presented to him when Robbie Henshaw suffered his own misfortune and was ruled out of the opening pool game against Canada with a hamstring injury.
He slotted in at inside-centre and featured strongly in the 50-7 win in Cardiff.
“I didn’t get selected and a guy got injured and I got in. I was delighted to be in — it was a bit of fortune. I think I’ve had my fair share of bad luck so I was happy to accept a bit of good luck.
Asked if he felt he was lucky to be at this World Cup after all he had been through, Fitzgerald said selection for the 31-man squad had always been his objective, even when he was struggling last season with a groin injury.
“It was the goal. I think it was definitely in the back of my mind at the start of last season, when obviously, I was struggling a lot. I couldn’t really figure out that groin problem. Once I got that sorted, it was obviously all back on the cards but I was pretty close to calling it a day. I had four injuries which took me over six months out. Two of which were nine-monthers and one that happened to be a 10-month injury as it turned out. I was doing the wrong rehab for a long time.
“It was very frustrating. I find it pretty hard to say that I’m lucky to be here and I know that’s not the context you’re asking the question in but I suppose I’ve worked really hard and definitely taken a couple of chances with injuries. There’s no one else playing the game professionally with the neck injury I have, so you take a chance with that.”
Triumph rather than fortune was the word Fitzgerald could live with to describe that journey to rugby’s biggest stage.
“I think it’s a pretty big achievement to have gotten here. I’m pretty happy to be here although obviously you always want to be playing every minute of every game.
“Given the journey that’s gone before, it’s a pretty fair comment to say it’s been a triumph.”
One of Fitzgerald’s selection rivals will be Simon Zebo, who excelled at full-back in Sunday’s win over Romania at Wembley only for his bubble to burst with the sad news that his grandfather had passed away that same day.
Zebo returned to Cork for the funeral but was back in camp yesterday as the squad trained at Surrey Sports Park near Guildford.
Doing “as well as could be expected”, Zebo said: “It’s been a tough couple of days, but getting back into camp and being around the lads again has been good.
“He would have been like a father to me. He lived right around the corner. I would have seen him and my grandmother every single day and I have great memories of them.”
Zebo was grateful for the support of his squad-mates. “It’s been great. They were very quick in coming up to me and just saying how sorry they were and how upset I must have been. But, you know, five minutes later they were making jokes and slagging me.
“They’ve just been great with helping me take my mind of it all. I thought it would be a lot harder than it was to come back here.
“But it’s just been made easier by seeing the lads and I was pretty much able to snap back into it straight away. I’ve trained pretty well today so that was a nice confidence-booster.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved