Luke missing Sexton's fire
Out-half’s return coming at perfect time, says Fitzgerald
Luke Fitzgerald has backed out-half Jonathan Sexton to be "one of the top players in the world in the next few years" ahead of what could be Sexton’s first appearance of the season in Edinburgh on Friday night.
The 23-year-old British and Irish Lion was given plenty of time to appreciate the good in his life and how to best combat the ill-fated moment when a serious knee injury ruined almost an entire season last November.
It gave him a perspective on the game, once removed from the inner circle of the dressing-room. He looked and learned how to be thankful for what he had and those he is now playing with again.
“I am really looking forward to Johnny (Sexton) coming back. He has really progressed. I don’t want to put too much pressure on him. Seeing him up close in training is fantastic.
“Every time he comes on the training pitch, he looks better. I am really looking forward to playing with him. He has a fitness test on Thursday. He seems fine.
“It will be good to see him back on the pitch. He is quality. Johnny is very assured and extremely competitive. Someone like him really drives a team on,” said Fitzgerald.
The return of Sexton couldn’t come at a better time for Leinster. They are barely afloat in the Magners League, losing two out of three, to stand lower than mid-division.
“Players have to get themselves up for games. Just because someone like Brian O’Driscoll or Johnny Sexton is not playing doesn’t mean I won’t play well. That is not the way it works. Personal responsibility comes into it,” he emphasised.
Fitzgerald’s old Blackrock College teammate Ian Madigan, the man who dropped a dramatic goal to kill off England in an Under-20 Six Nations international two seasons back, has had to step into the boots of Sexton.
It has not been a completely comfortable fit. “Ian is a really talented guy. He is confident. He has done really well. He has had very limited exposure at this level,” said Fitzgerald.
“It is tough when the team is not going well and you are playing at outhalf. He has had a baptism of fire. He has been thrown right in there. It will certainly benefit him in the future, having played these games.
“It is such a difficult position to play. You have to make a decision every single phase of the game.
“I am trying to spot opportunities. He is actually trying to create them. He’s got to direct the team. There is a big responsibility, big pressure. He is doing the job quite well.”
The inadequate return in points on the board for the effort expended is a frustration. While a stretch of poor form can be frustrating for a player, it can be lethal, even fatal, for a coach. Joe Schmidt will have to hold steady to his principles and rely on the players to deliver his philosophy on the pitch.
“Michael Cheika picked up an awful lot of flak in his first season and look how he did. The coaches have to be given time to impose their philosophy on how they want the team to play,” insisted Fitzgerald.
“This is not the time to panic. From a team perspective, Joe wants real fluency. He has really targeted our pass accuracy and timing. He wants to see heads-up rugby. It is basic stuff. It is the stuff we haven’t been getting right, so far,” said Fitzgerald.
It may seem like a basic shift in emphasis for a club with a glowing reputation as an attacking force. The simple facts, however, dictate that there must be a seismic change in philosophy. At the end of the regular season 2009-2010, Leinster finished on top of the Magners League with the second worst try total, next to Connacht, the fifth highest points total and the second meanest defence in the league.
In other words, it was the epitome of that trusted cliché ‘defence wins championships’. “The bad results have been down to the players. The platform we are working off is basic. It was very important to have a mechanised approach to grow. At this stage, there are a lot of experienced players at the club. We have been given more freedom. And that is the way the team will progress.
“We feel we can get so much more out of our attack. There is a maturity and experience in the squad that we should be able to play heads-up rugby. It can bring us onto a new level. “That is the direction we are going in. It is the right way to continue the development of the team.
“It is about spotting opportunities. The law changes will really suit us.”
Fitzgerald was not about to dig into his bag of excuses over the controversial Player Welfare Programme. It is not his remit to form policy, only to play the game as hard as he can.
“The Player Policy is a challenge for every team. That is something we’ve all got to deal with and get on with.
“You are a professional rugby player. You want to play every week. At the same time, you want to perform to the best of their ability on the big stage. The national management is saying you’ve got to be in the best physical condition for the internationals.”
Will Leinster have to suffer for Ireland’s greater good? Or can they come good? Tune in on Friday night.