Ex-Ireland prop Fitzpatrick embedded in US rugby's exciting rise

The former Ulster man is head coach of the Houston SaberCats in Major League Rugby.

BUT FOR HIS commitments in the US, Justin Fitzpatrick would have been in Belfast this weekend, in the thick of a 20-year reunion.

Ulster’s Heineken Cup-winning squad of 1999 – the first Irish provincial side to succeed in Europe – have gathered as guests of the Ulster Branch to celebrate some of the best memories of their lives.

They’re missing the man who started at loosehead prop in the final against Colomiers on 30 January 1999, with Fitzpatrick busy in his role as head coach of the Houston SaberCats, who are preparing for the upcoming second season of Major League Rugby.

Justin Fitzpatrick 30/1/1999 Fitzpatrick celebrates Ulster's Heineken Cup success in 1999. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Fitzpatrick, who won 26 caps for Ireland and also helped Ulster to the Celtic League in 2006, had an exhibition game against Austin on Friday to keep him occupied but is a little saddened to miss out on the fun back in Belfast.

“I’m excited to play Austin but disappointed I won’t get to see my old team-mates,” said Fitzpatrick earlier this week.

“It was a great time, it’s 20 years ago now but doesn’t seem that long ago. It was a special group of players, a great time and I have very happy memories.”

A native of Chichester in the UK, Fitzpatrick’s mother’s family were all Irish – hailing from Cork and Newcastle West – meaning he came to Ireland’s attention as soon as he burst onto the scene in the London Irish front row.

He won his first caps on the 1998 tour of South Africa and delighted in going on to play at Lansdowne Road, as well as featuring in the 1999 World Cup.

His move to Ulster in ’98 came about at the behest of Warren Gatland, the national team coach, and resulted in 10 years of happy times with the northern province.

“Warren wanted all the Irish-qualified players to be back in Ireland playing,” explained Fitzpatrick. “In the previous Five Nations, there were only a few domestically-competing players involved. Everyone else was in England.

“That obviously wasn’t ideal so he got a lot of the players to move back to Ireland. At London Irish, a lot of the guys I was playing with were Ulstermen so when I looked at which Irish province to play for, it was kind of the devil you know.

“Mark McCall, David Humphreys, Mark Blair, I’d also played with Allan Clarke and Simon Mason with the A team, so there were guys I knew in Ulster and it seemed a good fit.”

The move couldn’t have worked out better for Fitzpatrick, who also had a stint with French club Castres from 2003 to 2005, before returning to Ulster and eventually being forced to retired from playing in 2010 due to injury.

Justin Fitzpatrick Headcoach Fitzpatrick in SaberCats colours. Source: Houston SaberCats

Coaching had always been on the radar for Fitzpatrick, who did his first coaching badge as a 17-year-old and got more involved as his playing days winded down.

“I was very lucky to have the mentorship of the likes of Steven Aboud [now working in Italian rugby] and Colin Moran in the IRFU and they were exceptional in guiding me, giving me opportunities to learn and develop.”

Having been involved with Dungannon RFC as a player – winning the AIL in 2001 – and technical advisor, he was appointed director of rugby at the club upon retirement, guiding them to a Bateman Cup and a couple of Ulster titles over the three years that followed.

Fitzpatrick also worked as an assistant coach with Ireland Women in that time and even had an enjoyable one-month stint in charge of the Pakistan national team for the 2010 Asian Five Nations after a friend who worked in Rugby Asia called on him.

Though he relished his role with Dungannon, Fitzpatrick opted to accept a short-term offer from the Seattle Saracens in the US in early 2013, setting in motion the next chapter of his rugby career.

“It was more due to personal circumstances, to be honest,” he said of moving Stateside. “I was getting divorced and really wanted to get out of the country. I went over to Seattle for what I thought would be six months and things took on a life of their own.”

Having made a fine start in Seattle, Fitzpatrick swiftly came onto USA Rugby’s radar and he was forwards coach for the Collegiate All-Americans within months of arriving in the country.

By October 2013, he had been appointed assistant coach of the USA national team, focusing on the forwards under head coach Mike Tolkin.

Justin Fitzpatrick talks to the players Fitzpatrick during his time with Ireland Women. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Fitzpatrick calls his three years with the Eagles “interesting and challenging.” The experience of coaching at the 2015 World Cup was a highlight, although the fact that there was no professional rugby competition in the US at the time meant some squad members came into international camp lacking competitive match readiness.

It’s a different story now, however, with the second-ever season of Major League Rugby [MLR] kicking off in two weekends’ time.

With two new clubs taking the total to nine, and an increased 16-game regular season in store, Fitzpatrick is confident that the new campaign will make a big impact.

“There are a few things that are worth getting excited about,” he said. “You’ve got another two teams coming in with Toronto and New York.

“New York’s a very strong area of rugby traditionally in America, so you’ve got a lot of Irish there now as well, which always makes it interesting. Toronto is going to be pretty much the Canadian national team, bar a handful of guys. That’s going to be a challenge.

“It’s going to be a longer season, which is important. One of the biggest failings of American rugby has been the lack of competitive fixtures and I think spreading it out over a period we may be more used to in Europe or Australasia will certainly help to grow and develop the game and the players within it.”

Fitzpatrick is in his second season in charge of the SaberCats, with a number of Irish players in the squad.

Former Ireland U20 tighthead Charlie Connolly has taken to life in Houston “like a duck to water,” while ex-Connacht academy hooker Pat O’Toole, who is US-qualified, has also joined.

There’s another former Connacht academy man in loosehead prop Jamie Dever, a Mayo man who played for Ireland up to U20 level. Irish-qualified scrum-half Connor Murphy is “a plastic Paddy like myself,” joked Fitzpatrick, but he is a key man having joined from London Irish last year.

The SaberCats had big issues with their lineout throwing in 2018 but Fitzpatrick is confident the arrival of O’Toole and ex-Leinster and Connacht hooker Jason Harris-Wright, who will be coaching, will remedy that issue.

Charlie Connolly Former Ireland U20 prop Charlie Connolly is with the club. Source: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

“Jason is going to be coaching with our academy and looking after our lineout throwing,” said the Houston boss. “That’s very important.

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“You find here in America that some of the skill positions are lacking. Obviously, to have a thriving game, we need to be developing players in those skill positions and that’s a big focus for us – to make sure we’re giving local kids coming through the tools they need to hopefully be SaberCats one day.

There are further links to Ireland in the coaching team around Fitzpatrick, with “an Ulster clique” having formed “more by luck than design”.

Ex-USA international Paul Emerick, who was with Ulster briefly in 2010, has joined and provides an important link to the nearby West Houston club.

“High school rugby is very competitive in Houston but the club scene traditionally hasn’t been and it’s something we’ve been trying our best to work with the local stakeholders to raise that – part of the pathway to make sure we’re facilitating local players to potentially be SaberCats,” said Fitzpatrick.

“We’ve partnered with the West Houston Lions to achieve that, so we can replicate some of the things that go on in other countries.

“We’d love to grow that out to multiple clubs eventually, just like Ulster have Dungannon, Ballymena, Ballynahinch, etc. where the young academy guys, players coming back from injury, local talent vying to be looked at, all getting an opportunity to impress at a high level.”

Sam Windsor, an out-half with Ulster for the 2015/16 season, is onboard after impressing Fitzpatrick with his coaching up in Seattle and will also play again, while Neil Kelly – who coached the defence at Ulster from 2004 until 2008 – has also signed on to tighten up a defence that conceded too many points last season.

Houston won just one of their eight games last season, so there is real scope for improvement from a squad that Fitzpatrick believes now has much better depth and coaching resources.

With the MLR shown on national television in the US, new cities vying to have teams included in the coming years, major interest being shown from the big unions elsewhere in the world, and the national team enjoying an excellent 2018, it feels like the beginning of something special for US rugby.

RUGBY 2018: USA Men's Rugby Team vs Scotland Men's Rugby Team When the US beat Scotland last June, it was the first time their entire 23-man squad were professionals. Source: Maria Lysaker

“There’s always been a mystique about America and rugby over here and it’s great to be part of the growth of the game, seeing how it’s developed even in the short time I’ve been in the country,” says Fitzpatrick.

“For us, our ownership are investing multiple millions in building the new AVEVA Stadium, which will be the number one purpose-built rugby facility in North America.

“Other teams have plans to do similar things and with the TV exposure – we were the first professional sport to be on national TV at the first year of asking and TV is huge here in America. There’s so many exciting things going on.”

Ahead of a huge weekend of Heineken Champions Cup action, Murray Kinsella, Andy Dunne and Gavan Casey assess the provinces’ chances of putting a foot in the last eight:

Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

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