Luke Fitzgerald back in for Leinster
After a long injury the winger has been named on the team to face Zebre in the RDS
Luke Fitzgerald’s left-wing start for Leinster against Zebre at the RDS tonight represents an opportunity to consolidate and survive, not make exaggerated claims for a more favoured centre position. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Perhaps it shows the esteem in which he is held that Luke Fitzgerald was the talking point in the week Ian Madigan and Fergus McFadden were re-embedded into Leinster.
The mercurial Fitzgerald’s frustrated efforts to get back on the pitch have played out week by week in a string of false starts, enough of them at least for coach Matt O’Connor to answer a question with a question when asked how confident he was of the winger’s fitness holding up.
“How long is a piece of string?” replied the coach. Not overly convincing, maybe, but it was a glass half-full day as Fitzgerald was named on the Leinster left wing just minutes before Ulster announced flanker Stephen Ferris would make his first start in 16 months. Two Lions stirring.
Literally and metaphorically, both players have bodies to climb over before claiming their rightful places higher up the food chain. Proving physical durability in a brutal game is first base.
“As we’ve said all along, it is one of those awkward pelvic issues that you never really know and when you play the game like Luke does, there’s a massive amount of force put through that area of his body on any given playing or training day,” said O’Connor.
“We’ve looked at every opportunity to get him right and, fingers crossed, he’ll cross the paint tomorrow night and be good for us.
“We had a couple of weeks off. He didn’t have to do a lot of stuff. He worked incredibly hard with the medical team to get himself into a position where he could be selected. He feels very good in himself. Hopefully, he gets to kick-off and puts in a good shift for us.”
Even with that encouragement, there is a graduated ascent to playing with Leinster. The wing is less onerous than outside centre, a position several players have lined up when Brian O’Driscoll vacates. One of them, McFadden, plays there tonight.
For Fitzgerald though, it’s a time to consolidate and survive, not make exaggerated claims for a favoured position.
On that point O’Connor explained Leinster were satisfied with their selection of centres, while earlier this week Guy Easterby explained that world-class players were not available 18 months before a World Cup but would be afterwards. Top dollar now for less than the best product is not how Leinster do business.
“The thinking in relation to Luke is he’s got some individual injuries that are very well documented. The added pressure and the nuances of 13 is probably a step too far for him at the moment,” said O’Connor.
“Ferg (McFadden) has played there a lot as a kid, he’s played there for Leinster, and with the bodies that we’ve got in the group at the moment, that was the thinking. He’s incredibly physical in that space, Ferg, and he delivers on what he delivers on.”
May look abroad
At some point Leinster may look abroad and O’Connor agrees “we’re going to need a word-class bloke in that slot.”
They have already looked at the age profiles of players and while the ageless Gordon D’Arcy has agreed to sign for another season after this one, it falls to Girvan Dempsey to develop a production line of players to fill positions as they come available.
On 34-year-old D’Arcy, O’Connor was effusive: “I don’t know if it was beard-related or not, but he certainly is playing like a bloke significantly younger than he is. If it isn’t signed it’s agreed. But, yeah, he’ll be around next year.”
The remark may have also set a challenge for Noel Reid, who plays at inside centre tonight. An occasional outhalf, Reid is settling inside, with Madigan and Isaac Boss the midfield pairing.
Tadgh Furlong gets another opportunity at tighthead prop, while Kevin McLaughlin stakes a claim having now recovered from a facial injury.
After his Six Nations experience Jordi Murphy also hopes to kick along in the backrow, with Dominic Ryan there too.
Of the 11 Zebre players capped by Italy during the Six Nations, only five make tonight’s trip, Tommaso Iannone, skipper Marco Bortolami, George Biagi, who made his international debut in Rome on Saturday against England, Davide Giazzon and Guiglielmo Palazzani.