Luke Fitzgerald basks in new dawn after resolve earns reward

Resurgent Leinster winger encapsulates belief now flowing through Ireland squad

There are so many moments worth lingering over from Saturday, March 21st. A forever day with a legacy already seeping into the generation of wide-eyed children watching from near and


All the pieces mattered. Every single one.

Leonardo Sarto’s late try in Rome mattered, with little Luciano Orquera’s touchline conversion proving enormously beneficial as Ireland points chase was reduced to 21.


Jamie Heaslip’s jarring tackle on Stuart Hogg over Ireland’s try line in the 76th minute will always matter. Nigel Owens’ bravery in Twickenham mattered. Vincent Debaty gut-wrenching try really mattered. We must forgive Yoann Huget, he knew not what he was doing. Rory Kockott is welcome to the Emerald Isle any time.

Other moments mattered. Peter O’Mahony’s unimaginable high fielding. Sean O’Brien’s return to his bulldozing 2011 form despite 15 months recovering from three surgeries.

Paul O’Connell, still dominant, heroically tearing into (and more recently away from) opponents like the alpha wolf he remains. That matters.

“Ireland is a small island,” O’Connell reminded us. “It just goes to show how good the athletes we have, the players we have, but also the way the provinces are run. We’ve probably smaller resources...”

Than the superpowers of world rugby.

Jason Cowman, Ireland's strength and conditioning expert, and Dr Eanna Falvey's medical staff came in for sustained praise from Joe Schmidt and O'Connell, but perhaps Luke Fitzgerald was most complimentary of all.

The former child prodigy, hardly uninjured since November 2009, should be one of the best players in the world by now. Remarkably, at 27, that remains a realistic aim.

Last start

Despite his last start for Ireland coming in August 2011, a performance against France in Bordeaux that wasn’t enough to convince Declan Kidney to take him to New Zealand, Fitzgerald went back to Leinster where Schmidt ran him at 12 while Gordon D’Arcy was on World Cup duty.

Schmidt was always a believer. Fitzgerald pushed Simon Zebo out of Saturday's 23 despite the pursuit of tries being a scenario made for the Cork winger's electric attacking talents. An unused Felix Jones still doesn't make any sense.

But Fitzgerald's impact against Scotland more than compensated. Take his magical input after 23 minutes when streaking up the left touchline in support of Robbie Henshaw. Taking the pass, he welcomed contact before returning the favour to Henshaw. Simple, thrilling, direct rugby.

“I have a huge amount of belief in myself and I really didn’t feel like I had anything to prove,” said Fitzgerald. “I feel like I belong at that level.”

Belief It’s that sort of belief, which Fitzgerald was born with or which he

took from his parents Andrea and Des (who was a prop capped 34 times from 1984 to 1992) that flows through this Irish squad now.

The World Cup begins against Canada in Cardiff on September 19th and ends at Twickenham on Halloween night. “I think probably the expectation will be very high and I think it should be,” Fitzgerald continued, before echoing O’Connell’s attitude. “I don’t see any reason why...I mean Ireland’s great at everything.

“I was thinking about this the other day. It kind of goes back to what I was saying about that Irish mindset of maybe not always feeling like, maybe not always being comfortable with that favourites’ tag.

“I’m not saying we’re favourites [for the World Cup], I think people know that. But I think we’re a really good team. I think we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves. But I think we’re great at a lot of things in Ireland and I think there’s no reason why we shouldn’t go in with a lot of confidence.”

Of course Fitzgerald’s levels of belief are clearly unbreakable. Twice his deep resolve staved off the very real spectre of retirement after neck surgery was followed by a mysterious abductor/hip problem. He’s had two serious knee operations as well.

“I think what is good is we went out there and we put it on the line. I mean often times you tighten up in those scenarios and I think it’s a real lesson for any team going forward who has a favourites’ tag in Ireland is that you put it on the line, try it. If you fail trying, there’s absolutely no shame in that. At least you gave it a shot.

“That was in my mind going out onto the pitch, it might not have been in everyone else’s, but that was really what I felt today. I was going to give it a shot. Because I’ve given up too much, it’s been too long a journey back to not really have a go. And I think it really paid off.”

Contenders Such belief is different to 2007, simply because the squad is way more inclusive and the approach more “pragmatic”, according to Scotland coach Vern Cotter, who sees Ireland as genuine World Cup contenders.

“They didn’t win 10 in a row for nothing. They didn’t push the All Blacks a couple of years back for nothing. They are a very good team, well oiled.

“They are pragmatic and a good example of a functioning team that takes advantage of any form of weakness.”

Is pragmatism enough to win a World Cup?

“If they can get to the playoffs they’ve got a good opportunity.”

“Joe’s a great coach,” said Cotter and having recruited him to Bay of Plenty then Clermont Auvergne, he can attest to that. “He’s got the team playing like they played at Leinster. He’s had five years with that group now.”

Luck will always play its part. Or at least fortune. But Heaslip’s cover tackle on Hogg, borderline high yet textbook, was no lucky break, it was a number eight functioning on a robotic sense of unending endeavour.

“I feel pretty strongly that there was absolutely no luck involved,” said Fitzgerald. “Jamie could have left that, it would have been a try and nobody would have said anything. That was just pure work ethic there and good habits ingrained in a guy.”

That work ethic has seeped into the consciousness now. Not only of the team but across the Irish sporting landscape.

“It’s probably hard to put it down to just one thing. Joe and Paul mentioned it earlier on in saying the provinces do a fantastic job. I think there has been a pretty high level of consistency over the last 10 years.”

It gets better with Jonathan Sexton returning home this summer with JJ Hanrahan the only elite player to slip through the net.

“I think there’s still a bit of growth in the team,” Fitzgerald added.

Now to see about Schmidt’s new contract, which currently runs to June 2016. The IRFU have history for giving their head coach a four year deal before the World Cup. Nobody would be complaining this time.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent