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Dublin: 4 °C Sunday 19 January, 2020
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Forgotten man Fitzgerald facing long road back to the Irish fold

A protracted return from a neck injury means festive fixtures are the realistic aim for the Wicklow native.

Luke Fitzgerald played 19 times for Leinster last season.
Luke Fitzgerald played 19 times for Leinster last season.
Image: ©INPHO/Donall Farmer

SPEAKING AT A Leinster training session earlier in the week, Joe Schmidt revealed that one of his players was mounting a hefty phone bill.

He said, “There is one of them who rang me last Friday and Sunday, so before and after the Ireland game, just to remind me that he was very keen to play against Zebre if that was possible.”

Seconds before he made the statement, Schmidt had been delivering an update on Luke Fitzgerald’s injury status.

It would not be a stretch to imagine the Wicklow winger, having witnessed the impact Craig Gilroy was making with Ireland, picking up the phone and pleading for some game time against the Italians.

Gilroy and Tommy Bowe combined for three tries against Argentina on Saturday and, a week previously, the Ulster winger and Fergus McFadden ran in five tries against Fiji.

In TheScore.ie open thread, on Monday, that asked for opinions on the Irish team to start the Six Nations in 2013, Fitzgerald’s name did not figure in the conversion.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Utility back

Fitzgerald’s form suffered in early 2011 when he was asked by Ireland coach Declan Kidney to slot into the fullback role vacated by the injured Rob Kearney.

He missed out on World Cup selection but began the 2011/12 season with vigour and excelled in Leinster’s home Heineken Cup games against Bath and Cardiff.

A niggling neck injury could not be cured, however, without surgery and Fitzgerald went under the knife in May – missing out on the Heineken Cup Final triumph.

With Keith Earls and Simon Zebo as wing options once Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney return to the international fold, the 25-year-old will be focusing on regaining a starting role with his province.

Fitzgerald runs in his second try against Bath last December. (©INPHO/Dan Sheridan)

Great shape

Schmidt, who truly rates the abilities of the 24-times capped international, is eager to get him back playing but understands the waiting game.

“Luke is in great shape,” he said. “If you saw him out there training he is very sharp on his feet and it is just about waiting for the all clear so that he can take full contact again.

“That might be one, two or three or four weeks away but I wouldn’t expect it to be any more than that, if that.” The Leinster coach added:

He has made really good progress and he is ahead of schedule. We got a bit excited that he might be a bit further ahead than that but unfortunately we have to be a bit patient.

“We have to be prepared to do so because he is a top-quality member of our environment.”

The Zebre match is likely to have come too soon and it is doubtful that Fitzgerald will be thrown in away to Clermont Auvergne at the Stade Marcel Michelin.

The realistic target would be a place on the bench for the return clash at the Aviva Stadium or the festive fixtures against Ulster [away] and Connacht [home].

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Patrick McCarry

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