A little bit of Fitzy is all you needSat, May 2, 2009, 01:00
Luke Fitzgerald tells JOHNNY WATTERSON he always pictured himself playing in games like today's against Munster
READ IT on Bebo. "A little bit of Fitzy in our lives/a little bit of Fitzy down the sides/a little bit of Fitzy what we need/a little bit of Fitzy with his speed . . . " Accompanied with the declaration, in teenage patois, of "he's totally Awsume (sic)", we are in the company of the new generation of rugby player, the Bebo/Facebook/Myspace, everyone-can-post-a-view generation.
Luke Fitzgerald. Spiked hair and 21 won the Leinster Schools' Senior Cup and played for Ireland five months later. Hey presto, he's cyber fodder.
Earlier that year in 2006, John Ryan, a rugby coach in Blackrock College, found himself alone with Fitzgerald in the school office. The prescient Ryan unloaded something he'd being considering. He told the schoolboy, who was then 19, that he was talented enough to play on the Lions squad of 2009.
In rugby Blackrock has never been known to download a sense of under achievement in the minds of their students. Fitzgerald has lived with the pressure game from early days. In a school that often measures its success as an institution with rugby trophies, Fitzgerald rocked the walls, brought down the house. Then he moved on. "I was in the school office, probably in trouble for something," he says. "But it was great, especially coming from John Ryan who was a fine player himself; great to have people working day in day out with you, believing in you."
His first run out for Eddie O'Sullivan was the last match played in the old Lansdowne Road and added a historical twist to his blink-or-miss-it rise. When he stepped out from under the old West Stand, Fitzgerald was the youngest in 29 years to wear the shirt, younger than the feted alumni backs before him, younger than Brendan Mullins, younger than Brian O'Driscoll.
He plays with O'Driscoll and his dad Des told him what a thoroughbred Mullins was. He once watched the Irish centre chase down Emile N'Tamack. "He could move," he says of Mullins. Of the 32 players on the Lions tour to South Africa, only Wales winger, Leigh Halfpenny is, at 20, younger.
"The transition (from school boy to professional international) was difficult. But it was what I always wanted to do," he says. "I was delighted to have been given the opportunity by Eddie even though I probably wasn't ready.
"But those experiences stand to you. One of the key things as a young guy is getting game time in a pressured environment. There have been an awful lot of people who'd done that and then petered out, didn't really make the step up afterwards. It's good now that I've got a few consecutive games under my belt. That was always the worry. It was 'oh God' I've got a little taster now."
FITZGERALD STRIDES in through the door at Leinster's training facility at Riverview, a short walk from their ground at Donnybrook and the RDS. Inside the door is a floor-to-ceiling poster of O'Driscoll holding the Magners League trophy above his head, team-mates swirling in the back ground.
The image shouts winners. In the civilian world beyond the indoor tennis courts and weights room Fitzgerald stands out taller and broader than most. The hair is still up and blonde, the frame professionally sculpted for the needs of a fullback, centre or wing. The expression is unkept-sleepy and carefree, his shirt hanging from his wide shoulders and flapping at his waist where the flush, non-drinker's torso tapers away.
Fitzgerald is both modest and confident and is clever enough to know the difference. He plays down his meteoric rise, preferring to look at where his career might go than dwell on where it has been. He blanches at comparisons with O'Driscoll. "I don't want to be seen as comparing myself," he states clearly. "The challenge for the rest of us is, I suppose, to improve on what Brian has done."
Far from the deference and the respect and the luck of having companioned O'Driscoll on campaigns, his competitive edge is alive. The pressure Fitzgerald invites on himself is to play in the positions where he can have most impact for the team.
O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy, two white knights of his adolescence, stand like monoliths of the game in the centre. Fitzgerald's liberation from the wing may at some point involve the deposing of either or both.
It's rugby's territorial imperative that the venerable will eventually fall and vacancies will appear. And unlike O'Driscoll, who did not know, even when he was in UCD, whether he wanted to buy into the professional game, thoughts of such a charmed life have never strayed from Fitzgerald.
"It's definitely all I wanted to do," he says. "I've never wanted to do anything else in my whole life. I never seen myself doing any thing else. People ask me questions like what would you be doing if you weren't playing rugby. I don't even have an answer. I never thought of anything else. I knew I needed a back up getting a Leaving Cert and doing a degree. But I just never pictured myself doing anything else. I love everything about the sport.
"Sure, it can be difficult enough. You're almost public property. At times you have to accept people feel they have some sort of ownership over you. It's hard enough but I don't get crazy about it. I've never had a bad experience. I get this and that but nothing compared to Paul (O'Connell) or Brian (O'Driscoll) or Ronan (O'Gara) or any of these guys. I've learned from the way Brian deals with it. He gets serious attention wherever he goes."
He has beefed up his tackling and has learned the difference between caution on the pitch and using his discretion. Top coaches encourage player acumen. They empower and nurture creativity and they cherish talents like Fitzgerald whose instinct is to occasionally break out of the convention or prey on opportunities.
He thinks, though, that maybe prudence has won over his game in recent months, that his carefree gene has become less dominant. He hopes a readjustment can take place.
One of a few, his light feet and the ability to spin from tackles can take him places. In the cyber-world of Bebo they call him Pivot, a nickname he's never heard before. He can fix defenders and with his agility and balance complete the illusion of finding cheap yards in heavy traffic. In the sweat rooms of Leinster he has learned to react faster, learned to change direction more efficiently and his angles of running from deep onto O'Driscoll, D'Arcy and Felipe Contepomi give Leinster more than just a handy cutting edge.
"I think I've probably become too conservative at times at the back and I think I'll probably be trying to bring it (attacking from deep) back into my play," he says. "It's a great opportunity. You know, if you can start from back there it's actually very dangerous because the opposing team is often not that organised.
"If you take a quick pass and move it teams just won't be able to have the numbers they want in the defensive line. It is a big opportunity.
"In both teams (Leinster and Ireland) the coaches give a lot of room for individual players to make calls out there. I find that very comforting in knowing that I can take it on and there are no recriminations. The coach is comfortable with giving the responsibility. I think I'm very lucky to have that bit of freedom although you are never always going to make the right call. The challenge is to make the right call more often that the wrong call . . . At the back it can be high risk. But with risk comes reward.
"There are certain parts of it that you can definitely practice. But I think there is a part of it that's instinctive. At times it's the high-risk play. You got to have courage for it, to take on defences.
"You are behind all your forwards, so if you get caught there'll be trouble. You might not retain possession. It is a percentage play. You need to be aware of where the space is and you need the confidence to go at it and to back yourself."
A fluent Irish speaker, Fitzgerald is as sharp about where he comes from as about what he is. "Yeah, I sing the national anthem in Irish. Out loud. As loud as I can," he says. In his 30s his father reacquainted himself with the language and passed it down. In doing so offered his son another passion. It's the former Irish prop that the he now uses as a trusted, dispassionate sounding board.
But like Munster's Keith Earls, a player his own age and of similar standing, Fitzgerald has learned to become uncompromising and committed in the way he plays. His game for all of its jinks and feints is also concussive and robust. Players are bigger but at 6ft 1in he has the frame to hit hard.
"The most important thing is if you are in, then make sure you are in 100 per cent," he says. "Make sure you are 100 per cent committed because if you're not then you are going to get hurt.
"I was always taught that when I hurled as a kid. If you are getting in there you get in there and you don't back out because that's when you get hurt."
His supporters will say that the 'Luke' factor is diminished because he is out on the wing. The point being that even having a factor is something of a standard. Few people know where Ian McGeechan will play him on the Lions tour but in the UK they see Fitzgerald competing with Riki Flutey and Tom Shanklin for a place beside O'Driscoll.
If he is selected for any of the Test matches it's another box ticked. It's also no less than he will expect.
"It was a bit surreal the first time, when I first got to be playing alongside guys I'd been watching on TV," he says. "Strange feeling, yeah but I always felt I belonged at the level and I'd never be thinking that I didn't belong there. I've always pictured myself playing in games like this against Munster, always dreamed of playing in games like this. There are lot of people out there who have dreams and never achieve them.
"I feel very lucky but also feel I belong there. On a rugby pitch I believe I belong at the top level. You've got to aim high. There is no point in aiming for mediocrity. That's one of the important parts of building a winning culture."
Lou Bega's Mambo No5 was a one hit wonder. Fitzgerald, with his stacked accomplishments, is just beginning. Even Bebo knows that.
"A little bit of Fitzy in defence/a little bit of Fitzy he's immense/a little bit of singing from the fans/a little bit of Fitzy he's our man."
DOB:September 13th, 1987
Nickname:Pivot, by Irish fans
Other Honours:2009 Lions