herald

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Luke’s woe behind him

LUKE Fitzgerald is flying high again.

The contract squabbles, neck injury and subsequent operation that took him away from rugby for eight months must be a distant, at times distasteful memory.

They have been replaced by ‘the up’ of game time for Leinster, ‘the down’ of the Heineken Cup exit and ‘the up’ of a place in the Irish Wolfhounds squad to play the England Saxons in Galway on Friday.

It really has been a roller-coaster ride. The bubble inside which elite international players operate was burst last April, the safety net of his Ireland contract removed from his grasp. They must have been dark days.

Nonetheless, Ireland backs coach Les Kiss has been taken by Fitzgerald’s explosive return to action: “It has been nice hasn’t it? It is a real pleasing thing. Personally and, I guess, from all the coaches, we are really happy to see Luke back playing as well as he did before he had his injury problems.

“I guess the big thing for Luke, over the last two years, is that he is working into nine, 10, 12 games now. It is nice to see him find his feet so quickly this time round.

“If you went back a month, you would be wondering whether he was going to be here in the squad. But, he’s done so well in his short time frame in just two games.

“Well, he’s right in the shop window now, isn’t he?” noted Kiss.

He certainly is. Fitzgerald signed a one-year deal with Leinster coach Joe Schmidt who valued him highly. He has the rest of the season to show his value.

Then, the vultures may come circling. Fitzgerald was not best pleased at the value the IRFU placed on him last season. Contract negotiations were slow and unfulfilled.

It would be easy to turn away from the Irish Rugby Football Union and towards the high-end salary of a paid mercenary, a gun for hire at the end of this season.

In short, Fitzgerald is not just playing for his club or even his country. He is playing for his place in the game, whether that will be at home or abroad.

Significantly, the Greystones man slipped back into form immediately against Edinburgh, The Scarlets and Exeter Chiefs, making him a legitimate, even obvious choice for Ireland’s Six Nations opener against Wales at The Millennium Stadium.

First-choice Tommy Bowe has been ruled out of the Six Nations. Simon Zebo must be favoured to take one of the wing jerseys against Wales.

Andrew Trimble’s form has dipped slightly and Craig Gilroy’s mesmerising attack does not cover over the cracks in his defence.

“Luke has let the game come to him rather than just over-chasing opportunities rather than over-playing his hand. He has looked a patient, composed footballer,” said Kiss.

“When I first came here, he had that in bucket spades. Maybe, in the frustration around his injuries, he maybe tried to get too much down in his game.

“He seems like he has really found his niche. He injects himself at really timely moments. He is doing all his basic things very well.

“I think he feels really comfortable about his whole body at the moment. He’s really looking sharp on the pitch. He’s in good form.”

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