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Saturday 16 December 2017

Luke Fitzgerald: I'm close to getting back to my best

Leinster wing Fitzgerald back in Schmidt's thoughts for weekend

Luke Fitzgerald, Leinster, goes over to scores his side's third try despite the tackle of Samuela Vunisa, Zebre
Luke Fitzgerald, Leinster, goes over to scores his side's third try despite the tackle of Samuela Vunisa, Zebre

Luke Fitzgerald stared down the barrel and survived the threat.

The recovery from a long-term hip/groin mystery has given him a change of perspective, a new lease on his work life that is apparent in how he plays the game.

This can happen when the very thing you love is almost taken away.

"As you get a bit more mature you realise that being intense, uptight before these things probably doesn't add any value," he said.

"It doesn't give you clarity of thought out on the pitch. When things are happening really fast, being calm in that moment.

"I look at guys ... Isa Nacewa, Johnny Sexton, Brian O'Driscoll in fairness as well, great clarity of thought in very fast moments.

"All the best players seem to have that bit of calmness in those periods and I am trying to emulate, trying to bring it to my game."

The man of the match impact against an admittedly mediocre Zebre on Friday night is not exactly the best measurement of how Fitzgerald is feeling.

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That comes from the man himself: "I feel like I'm getting close to where I was. I feel like there is a huge amount of potential left in me."

The Ireland fifteen is not immune to change just because they have gone two out of two against Italy and France.

Coach Joe Schmidt doesn't think like that and it keeps everybody ready to expect the unexpected.

The 27 year-old is willing to play the game of patience.

"I don't think I have to do anything more than I am doing," he said.

"I know from getting the feedback from Joe that I'm knocking on the door and I'm really, really close.

"That's exactly what he said, so I just take him at his word and for me it's the same things, keep playing well, keep training well.

"It's a settled squad but Joe is the type of guy who, if there is something different to be added or a guy brings something different, he feels that person will do that on the big stage for him.

"I think there is probably a level of trust built up between us as well having played together for three or four years beforehand."

The Fitzgerald of old is popping up again all over the place. He wants to get back into the green jersey.

"I feel great. I feel like I'm training well and au fait with his system," remarked Fitzgerald.

"I know what he (Schmidt) expects. He's a very technical coach, so a lot of those things are ingrained in me.

"I feel like I have an advantage over the other guys there in that respect. I also feel really ready to go. I feel great. I'm in a very good spot."

The 27 year-old has racked up eleven starts this season, all but one of them lasting the full 80 minutes.

"It's weird. It's like you have different systems in place for different things happening on the pitch," he explained.

"I feel like I'm back with those being things on auto-pilot again and doing all the right things - that kind of instinctive place that every athlete wants to get to.

"I feel like I'm getting back doing all those good things again naturally without having to think about it.

"That is always a good place to be, when you are instinctive and the other guys have to think about it. That is always a nice place."

The fact that he picked up his first try of the season on Friday is another box ticked, one he wants to keep on ticking.

The journey from wing to centre and back again at Leinster is not the most arduous.

The positions do, however, bring different demands which have been aided by his new found 'Zen-like' attitude to preparation.

"I have a lot more relaxed approach to playing the game, making a lot easier for me to switch position and a lot calmer doing it," he said.

"That really aided me going into the centre, especially where things are happening a little bit quicker. You've got a little more decision making to do."

A long-time ambition to play at outside centre has been replaced by a play anywhere approach down to a number of factors, not least the will to return to the green jersey.

"For me, I'm a huge fan of Matty's (O'Connor). I'll play wherever he wants me to play, wherever he feels that is best for the team, I go in there and I have absolutely no problem doing that.

"Joe mentioned it to him and I mentioned to him as well, that Joe was looking at me primarily as a winger in there. I would say more as a utility option and cover on the bench for that centre spot.

"In fairness, Matty did say he'd give me a shot so I could get in the shop window with Joe."

The confidence to carve up defences is coming back quickly.

"I feel like I'm still on that upward curve and getting back to where I would really like to be and where I feel I can get to.

"I actually like that about myself. I love to always be aspiring to be better at something.

"I was just saying to the medical guys in Irish camp and Leinster camp that I'm starting to feel normal again, not worrying about the injury.

"I feel like all the continuity in the training has been great for me and all the games in a row because it has given me all that fitness in the area (groin).

"I don't have to worry about that now and I can just go out and play," he said.

"I'm in a really good place."

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