Good Genes

Munster hurling pedigree helping Fitzgerald thrive for Ireland under 20s

The father of the try-scoring winger enjoyed his own underage success.

IT’S IN THE genes for Munster and Ireland under 20s star Stephen Fitzgerald.

The winger will start his fourth under 20 international tomorrow night when Nigel Carolan’s ‘Wolfpuppies’ aim to finish the campaign on a high against Scotland.

The Limerick flier’s family is rightly proud, but they’re able to take it in their stride too. For the Fitzgeralds have pedigree in the underage arena.

Ardscoil Ris' Stephen Fitzgerald celebrates at the final whistle Stephen Fitzgerald celebrates reaching the Munster Schools Cup final with Ardscoil Ris. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Stephen’s father, John, is a minor All-Ireland winning hurler for the Treaty County while his brother Conor this week unfortunately emulated his feat of helping Ardscoil Ris to a Munster Schools Cup final, only to be foiled by local rivals Crescent.

“So sport has always been heavily involved for our family and my other brother plays hurling too. My mam loves all sport as well,” Fitzgerald says with a smile.

Conor Fitzgerald celebrates after kicking a penalty to win the game Conor Fitzgerald congratulated after kicking a late winner in the semi-final against PBC. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

School days are drifting off into the past though, thanks to Fitzgerald’s fast progress. In the summer, he was handed a Munster jersey for a pre-season friendly. As the nerves jangled he looked around, expecting experienced pros to be nonplussed by the moment, but instead found the ever-ready Donncha O’Callaghan shouting words of encouragement.

“It was kind of surreal, because I was just out of school and focusing on playing for Munster 20s that year. Then, the couple of injuries, after the Sevens I was called in and it was an incredible day to be involved in.

“I remember before the match I had never been so nervous in my life. I supported Munster all my life and it would have been a dream to ever put on the jersey.

“In the dressing room before, [O'Callaghan] was really getting his voice across. You would think somebody with that experience he wouldn’t really care about a couple of A matches. but when he comes down to young lads it seems like he nearly enjoys himself more – even joining in with the craic with us and everything.  He just seems like a guy who loves what he’s doing. Obviously that would rub off on everyone.”

Stephen Fitzgerald scores their first try Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

At 19, Fitzgerald can’t help but let that enthusiasm shine through, even when bringing up the only dip in his international career to date; a dropped cross-field kick, against England of all people, live on RTE. Yet when Fitzgerald explains himself, the easy criticisms from the hurlers in the ditch start to ring hollow.

“I saw one of the English players [George Perkins] coming across me and I just wanted to try and get through him and stay on the floor. I didn’t want to go up in the air, because I thought if I did somebody would tackle me [off balance] and drive me back. At the last second when I was going up for it the light kind of got in my eye-line. Unfortunately I knocked it on. I got a lot of stick about it.”

He adds: “The pace of international rugby is something I’ve never experienced before. Especially in that English match on the 4g pitch, at times you’d barely even be breathing. You want to get off and lie down on the floor for a few minutes.”

Unlike the senior men and women, the under 20s do not have a title to compete for in Scotland this weekend. What they do have, is an opportunity to lay down a marker against Scotland, an opponent they will face in this summer’s Junior World Cup. From here on in to the world stage, Carolan’s squad will aim to rediscover the free-flowing style that brought such a thrilling victory over France.

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