Fitzgerald's renaissance a bonus amid bonuses for Leinster
Pool Five Leinster 33 Scarlets 14:The roar on 61 minutes signalled Brian O’Driscoll’s arrival but the standing ovation that followed was Luke Fitzgerald’s alone.
It’s funny how quickly a sportsman, even one seemingly destined for greatness, can be forgotten. Since April, Fitzgerald had disappeared from the mind’s eye. Occasionally his name would be mentioned, a throwaway question to coaches about his rehab that would elicit an uncertain response. Nearly . . . soon . . . maybe next week. Answers shrouded in doubt.
For a time he seemed destined for sporting tragic on a par with Bo Jackson – the brilliant LA Raiders running back snatched by a career-ending injury in his prime.
Would that be the story of Luke (without the lucrative Nike endorsement or double life as a home run machine)? The brightest of stars that soared before fading into the darkness? But Luke knew.
On the evidence of Saturday night he never gave up. A long and lonely road back from neck surgery is finally complete. And don’t forget the ruptured knee ligaments just five months after playing on the wing for the 2009 Lions.
Add in the withdrawal of an IRFU national contract in December 2011 and it has been a wretched, cursed even, mid-career crisis.
But on his first outing in Dublin for eight months we realised this enormous talent has not been idle. There was the usual bamboozling side-step, excellent high fielding and a nicely finished try – with credit going to a one-handed Cian Healy offload and link play by Devin Toner – but new weapons have been added to his arsenal.
There were glimpses of an improved passing range, which supports Joe Schmidt’s previous idea that his future could be as an inside centre.
Anyway, he’s back – not even a whip-lashing hit by Tongan flanker Sione Timani could subdue his enthusiasm to contribute.
It was the most captivating subplot in an otherwise routine Leinster flogging of the terribly poor Scarlets.
There were other stories from Saturday night, like the latest example of a Welsh side being some distance off the standard set by their national side.
It prompted a question for Scarlets coach, the 65-times capped Ireland flanker Simon Easterby: for all the talk of respecting this competition, doesn’t holding Welsh and Lions hooker Matthew Rees and centre Jonathan Davies in reserve indicate otherwise?
“We had a Welsh hooker starting the game,” Easterby responded with reference to Ken Owens (11 caps versus Rees’ 60). “We had a limited squad to choose from [due to injury]. It is what it is.” It certainly is.