Stephen Fitzgerald has admitted he is "heartbroken" after being forced to retire from rugby at the age of just 25. The Connacht outside back suffered a serious knee injury while playing against Leinster in January of last year and after three operations has been advised to retire on medical grounds.
Born in Ardnacrusha, County Clare, Fitzgerald first began playing rugby aged seven with Shannon and after playing for Ardscoil Rís represented Munster in all under-age grades, as well as playing Under-19s and Under-20s with Ireland. Aged 19, he made a try-scoring debut during an away win over Ospreys in September 2015.
Having initially joined Connacht on loan in December 2018, he subsequently signed a two-year deal but injuries have restricted him to just 18 appearances for the western province.
Demonstrating the vagaries of modern professional rugby, Fitzgerald’s announcement comes within days of his younger brother Conor playing a starring role in Connacht’s win over Munster, thus completing the province’s first ever hat-trick of victories away to their three provincial rivals in the same season.
In a statement, Fitzgerald said: “I’m devastated and heartbroken to be finishing my career at the end of the season. The last two years have been extremely tough with three operations on my knee and unfortunately this is a battle that I’m going to lose.
“The one thing I’m massively proud of and gives me peace of mind moving forward is knowing I have worked the hardest I ever have in my life trying to get back. I’ve been lucky to have the amazing medical staff in Connacht looking after me, who all went above and beyond anything I ever expected. They always had my best interests at heart and I’ll always be grateful for their efforts.
“Growing up I dreamed of playing rugby at the highest level. I’ve been lucky to experience this with both Munster and Connacht. I’m extremely grateful to all my coaches and teammates for the amazing memories from my school days with Ard Scoil, with my club Shannon, to representing my country underage and finally to playing for both Munster and Connacht.
“The thrill I got from playing in front of family, friends and fans in a packed Thomond Park or The Sportsground is like nothing I’ve experienced before. I want to thank all the fans who have supported me and welcomed me with open arms along the way. Being fortunate enough to play for you and have your support is something that will always make me proud.
“Lastly, I just want to thank everyone who has helped me get to where I am today. I’m extremely lucky to have amazing friends and family who have supported me. My family and girlfriend have been there for me more than they will ever realise and I just hope I’ve made them proud of what I’ve done.
“I look forward to being a fan and enjoying getting back in the stands with ye all soon.”