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The unluckiest player in Irish rugby - forced into retirement at just 25

Stephen Fitzgerald was tipped for greatness as a teenager but injuries got in the way. Now he hopes younger brother Conor can carry the family flame and become an Ireland international.

Stephen Fitzgerald had to retire last week.
Stephen Fitzgerald had to retire last week.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

THE FINAL GAME of Stephen Fitzgerald’s career felt like a beginning rather than the end.

He had just turned 24 and was no longer the kid whose confidence had been ‘shattered’ after four years at Munster. The Stephen Fitzgerald dream, intact and alive.

An Ireland cap was in his sights even if he knew the first queue he’d have to jump was here in the Sportsground. Tiernan O’Halloran, capped six times by Ireland, a star on the Pro12 winning team in 2016, was ahead in the line.

Until this night, 4 January 2020, at the RDS. “When I joined Connacht, I set myself a goal. Tiernan, he’s the standard, an international; a brilliant player. The first time I’d been selected instead of Tiernan was that Leinster game; also the first time I’d ever played at the RDS.” A gateway to bigger things.

He remembers the traffic backed up towards Ballsbridge that night, punters swallowing the last dregs of their Christmas holiday pints, and unbeknownst to everyone, some of the last they’d taste in a pre-lockdown world.

The Connacht bus arrived to cheers. Every seat in the house had been sold. Fitzgerald switched off the music on his iPhone but left his earphones in; a do-not-disturb message to outsiders.

He sat in the dressing room and closed his eyes because he liked listening to the buzz of a match-day crowd. “Some lads meditate; some read the match programme; some chat. My thing was hearing the murmur of the fans milling around the stadium, allowing the excitement build inside you.”

There was no Jim Telfer type Everest speech to interrupt their routine. All the pre-match chats had already been delivered at the team hotel, Jarrad Butler speaking first, then Connacht’s coach, Andy Friend. “I really like Andy, he has a way of connecting with people, instilling belief. ‘Don’t be afraid to try things,’ he said that day.”

This was the pledge he made to himself when he stood in the tunnel just before kick-off, wearing his black short-sleeved shirt, black shorts and black socks. “The little voice inside my head said ‘don’t let this be one of those occasions that passes you by’.”

That’s why he did what he did. A loose kick, struck a little too hard landed deep in the Connacht ‘22. Fitzgerald collected. Twenty-four years old, a former schoolboy star in Limerick with Ardscoil Ris, ex-Ireland Under 20 player, winner of seven caps with Munster, 18 with Connacht, ball in his hands, dream in his head. He looked up. “I remember seeing a prop and a second row in front of me.” His inner voice reminded him of Friend’s advice.

“I’m going to have a go at these – that was my thought. I never really cared about getting smashed. If anything, weirdly, that kind of geed me up to go back for more. I don’t want this to sound arrogant but I knew I had things; that I was quick, skilful, that I could step. I saw the two forwards and thought ‘yeah, I should be too fast for them’.”

He moved towards them, getting closer and closer. But he delayed doing his trick. Waited and waited because he knew the right time to step is at a certain distance where the bigger men don’t have time to adjust their feet. “And then I went for it. I planted my foot and it was almost like my studs did too good a job; they went too far into the grass and got stuck.

stephen-fitzgerald-leaves-the-field-injured The final walk: injured at the RDS in 2020. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I went to turn, my foot didn’t move, my knee just buckled. I heard these noises, these cracks, these pops. I was waiting for the pain but it wasn’t there. I walked off the pitch.”

Down the tunnel, into the dressing room. He remembers ‘the look’ on the physio’s face; hearing the words that he’ll be sent for a scan. It’s there, a few days later, when he is first told of the three letters that will change his life and end his career.

ACL.

He cries.

He doesn’t know it then but he’ll never play a game of rugby again.

**

In a strange way lockdown helped as players recovering from injury can’t bear to be in the vicinity of the rest of the squad going about their routine, hearing their whoops and cheers, cajoling and banter.

Instead of the loneliness of rehabbing in Galway, he ended up in a holiday home in Kilkee, just himself, his brother – Connacht’s out-half, Conor – and their partners. His recovery programme appeared to be going better than expected by the time July came around. Now back in Galway, he thought he was on the motorway back to fitness.

stephen-fitzgerald-and-conor-fitzgerald-dejected-after-the-game Stephen (l) with younger brother Conor (r). Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Instead he’d be pulling into the hard shoulder, calling the AA. “I woke up one day and the knee felt weird, different. There was no big incident. I tried to train but it was way too sore.” Two further operations followed, one in November, the other in February. For far too many players, this is where careers end, in a hospital ward, a surgeon looking at a chart, then at the person, shaking their head, apologising for the news they are about to deliver.

Ten days ago the secret got out, a press release confirming that a career which promised so much was prematurely coming to an end. “Connacht Rugby can confirm Stephen Fitzgerald will end his playing career when his contract expires at the end of the season.”

Within an hour, his phone rang. Cian Lynch, the poster boy on the Limerick hurling team who have won two of the last three All-Irelands, called to remind him of what he’d achieved, not what he’d lost. “Sports people know the risks you put your body under, they have an understanding of it,” Fitzgerald says.

Jimmy Duffy, the Connacht forwards coach, came up a day or two later and advised him to thank those closest to him for their help in his career.

He knew where to start.

**

Kate and John Fitzgerald run a Spar in the Limerick suburb of Raheen. They also have a full-time job trying to run after their three sons, spending one week in 2015 going from a Junior Cup game where Conor scored the winning kick, to an All-Ireland Under 21 hurling final, where Evan – their eldest – was a panellist with Limerick; to Athlone, where Stephen was scoring a crucial try in a win for the Ireland Under 20s over France.

“Whenever any of us play well, it means so much to them,” Fitzgerald says. “They talk about it for the week, they’re so happy, on such a buzz. So, I just felt when I was making the decision to retire that I was letting them down because they got so much joy from my rugby. I felt guilty for taking that away from them.

“Like I remember when I got my first Ireland underage cap as an Under 18. My dad is pretty tough but whenever some of us do something like that, he’d have tears in his eyes.”

Another year brought another cap, this one for the Under 20s in Galashiels, the Scottish border town. “It took the mother about 10 hours to get there. I had a look out to see where she was just before kick-off – because it was a small enough ground and I knew she’d planned to come over. When I didn’t see her, I kind of thought, ‘ah, something must have come up at the shop or whatever’.”

In any case, there was a game to play. Midway through the first-half, Fitzgerald was put clear. “As I was running in the try, nearing the line, I heard this lunatic running alongside me, roaring like mad. I had a quick glance to my right and saw it was my mum, racing down the touchline on the other side of the railings. She practically scored the try with me, she was running that hard.”

He laughs at the little story before breaking off, knowing there won’t be a sequel to tell from life as a senior international.

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stephen-fitzgerald-scores-a-try Fitzgerald scores a try for Ireland U20s. Source: Giuseppe Fama/INPHO

“I’ll always have regrets that I never really fulfilled my potential and I’m not being negative when I say that. A lot of my friends have been telling me that I have done things that every kid who first picks up a rugby ball dreams of doing. I don’t want this to sound cocky or whatever but I knew from around the time I was playing Senior Cup that I had a lot of good qualities for being a back three player.”

One quality he lacked was luck, injuries plaguing him from his second day as an academy player at Munster. “When I got that ankle injury on day two of my time at Munster, I was fighting a battle to stay healthy.

“My regrets are that I never felt that it was ability that held me back, but my body. Plenty may disagree and say I was a shite player but I had dreams and ambitions of playing for Ireland. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to achieve them.”

**

Conor might.

The youngest of the Fitzgerald boys is in the form of his life, steering Connacht to victories over Ulster and Munster in the last six weeks. He’s 23, boyish looking, burdened to be playing behind a light pack, but deceptively tough despite his relatively small frame.

“I am massively proud of what he has done,” older brother, Stephen, says. “In that Munster game (when Connacht won by four points last month), he really took the bull by the horns and went after it. I respect players massively for that, players who don’t worry about the repercussions but who just go for things.

“If Conor went on to play for Ireland, I would have a bit of jealously because of what I wanted to achieve but it would be coming from a good place. I’d be the person up in the stands cheering him on, roaring crazily, making a fool of myself.

“He is playing really well; they should bring in someone like him or Harry Byrne for the summer Tests. If he got a cap, it’d do the absolute world for his confidence.

“Think back to when he was let go from Munster. I am pretty sure he was close to not going up to Connacht because he didn’t know if he wanted to go through (a rejection) like that again. I always knew the ability he had.”

Even in the moment of his departure, The Nearly Man does not forget his role as big brother, hoping upon hope that after spending so much of his career in the shadows, his sibling will get a chance to see the light.

As for Stephen, the time for reflection has passed. Summer is here, his winter of rehab over. A business degree has been banked. A new life beckons, rugby having given him some of the best days of his life as well as some of the worst. “Since the announcement, it has been good to talk about things and remember that I did actually achieve things and not be so down on myself about everything.”

The final destination wasn’t what he’d hoped for but at least he got to go on the journey.

Most people don’t.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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