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Friday 18 August 2017

Luke Fitzgerald on the wing with a prayer

Fitzgerald: It's difficul t when you're miles away and close to retirement

Luke Fitzgerald
Luke Fitzgerald

These are still baby steps for Luke Fitzgerald.

The veteran international is back to the foothills of a journey towards a first ever World Cup. That's right. A first.

"It is the big disappointment so far in my career that I have never been involved in a World Cup campaign," he said.

It was just a few short months ago that he was moored in deep contemplation of the end of his career from a problematic hip/groin injury.

"The World Cup is everyone's long term goal. It's the cherry on top for anyone who writes their goals down," he admitted.

He has learned to take his game days one at a time.

He knows better than to take a peek around the corner to dream of a golden Autumn when Scotland will be coming straight at him tomorrow.

"This is too far away to be an audition just yet. There's an awful lot of rugby to be played in between then and now.

"I can't say that's been on my mind. It really hasn't. I've just focused on trying to get into the team for the Six Nations."

The Ireland wing will start the final game of the Six Nations, not as a rookie, but a 27 year-old experienced campaigner.

REMINDED

"I've been reminded constantly that it is four years since my last start. I'm delighted to be involved for the big one," he said.

The fact that Fitzgerald has been dropped straight into the team without even an appearance on the bench in the first four matches means his selection comes as a surprise to some.

Not him.

"I don't think it is out of the blue," he said. "I'd hoped it would have been sooner, I can't lie.

"But, from a coach's view, you have to be empathetic, even though it's unbelievably hard when you're so vested.

"Changing a winning team is always tricky. The boys have been doing a really good job for a long while. Ten wins in a row isn't easily done in any jersey."

There is a definite sense that the Greystones man is seizing a second chance, not in playing for his country, just in playing the game at all.

He had exhausted almost all avenues when flummoxed by a hip-groin injury that seriously threatened his career as recently as the start of this season.

"I feel vindicated after all that hard work," he reflected.

"It's difficult when you're a million miles away and you're close to retiring, because you can't figure out injuries.

"So, it's hard to say you're lucky to be in. I'm blessed to be in this position, but I worked really hard."

This is his opening to move ahead of Simon Zebo, Dave Kearney, Andrew Trimble, Keith Earls and Fergus McFadden with the World Cup hovering on the horizon.

"For myself, I've nothing to prove. I've played an awful lot of times, well a good few times for Ireland at this stage.

basics

"I think people know what I'm about at this stage. I just have to execute what I am good at.

"The basics in international rugby are always a little more important in the big games.

"I'm very experienced. I'm not really nervous, looking forward to it," he said with relish.

Besides, there will be no greater pressure than that Fitzgerald places on his shoulders. To emulate or imitate Simon Zebo would be a mistake. And he knows this.

"I don't think I can do what Simon does. I do what I do. That's why I'm in the team," he stated.

"That lateral movement is the strongest part of my game, you know, that footwork, beating guys, drawing in defenders. All those kinds of things.

"Creating opportunities for myself and others, that's what I'm in the team to do."

While Fitzgerald has always carried the torch for dazzling Irish wing play, it is his steely work without the ball that has underpinned every good break he has ever made.

Coach Joe Schmidt cited the "wear and tear" of the championship as a reason for Zebo's demotion and the "energy and enthusiasm" of Fitzgerald to freshen up Ireland's options out wide.

"Fifty per cent of the game is defence too, more often that not. I feel I'm really strong in that aspect. I can't try to be anything other than what I am."

It's been good enough to make him a Lion; good enough to take him to the World Cup.

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