Saturday 16 December 2017

Luke's lined up for Conn' job

Fitzgerald in frame to make Blues return in derby duel

Leinster's Luke Fitzgerald is in the running to make his season's debut against Connacht in the PRO12 League at The RDS on Saturday.

The former British & Irish Lion was reduced to a club contract when his Ireland add-on was withdrawn during his protracted contract negotiations last season.

Sadly, the Irish Rugby Football Union was not as convinced as Fitzgerald and his representatives about his market value.

There were accusations and counter-accusations as a simple 'yes' or 'no' turned into a 'definite, maybe' before Fitzgerald was struck down with a neck injury at the end of April.

The 25-year-old signed on for one more year at Leinster, at a reduced salary, giving him the option to leave the province for England, France or Japan at the end of this season or to prove himself all over again to Ireland coach Declan Kidney.

He has always had the faith of his club coach: "Hopefully, we'll be in a position to welcome back Luke, Eoin (O'Malley), Dave (Kearney) and Shane (Jennings) either this week or next," said Joe Schmidt.

Centre O'Malley and wing Dave Kearney were hit with soft tissue injuries before the Ulster match and Jennings was beaten up in the back row of Leinster's defeat to Clermont Auvergne in the Heineken Cup. They could be back against Connacht.

Club captain Leo Cullen required five stitches to a wound above his eye against Ulster. The veteran second row will train this week and should be able to participate on Saturday.

Even more significantly, the imminent long-awaited return of Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll and full-back Rob Kearney will come as a double shot in the arm in the New Year.

For the moment, Leinster (31) are in dire need of points in pursuit of PRO12 League leaders Ulster (47 points), The Scarlets (38), Munster (33) and Glasgow Warriors (32) as they contemplate life outside the top four in fifth.

There have been over 16,400 tickets moved for an Inter-provincial derby that will be based on Connacht's complete humiliation of Leinster (34-6) in Galway at the end of September.

"These interprovincial games around the Christmas period are great for players and supporters alike and it looks like we're going to have another big crowd which is fantastic," said Schmidt.

"The support that we have received at home and on the road over 2012 has been fantastic and on behalf of the players and management I'd just like to thank everyone for their backing.

"We hope everyone has a great Christmas and we are determined to regain our place in the play-off spots, starting, hopefully, with a strong performance this weekend."

For that to happen, Leinster will have to make better use of the possession they won against Ulster at Ravenhill on Friday night and improve out of all recognition at scrum time.

"We played well in parts of the Ulster game and it was frustrating not to get something for our efforts," said Schmidt.

"The improving Connacht side have proved very difficult to beat this year. There is no doubt about how committed and passionate they will be arriving into The RDS."

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