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'He's a great fella. He calls himself an Ardscoil legend every time I see him!'

22-year-old Stephen Fitzgerald has impressed for Munster in recent weeks.

Murray Kinsella reports from Thomond Park

ASKED FOR SOME insight into 22-year-old Stephen Fitzgerald’s presence around the Munster squad, Mike Sherry – captain against Ulster yesterday as he made his 100th appearance – couldn’t resist having a bit of craic.

Stephen Fitzgerald Fitzgerald is showing his ability for Munster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Like Fitzgerald, Sherry is a former Ardscoil Rís student, and as a man who is always capable of slagging a team-mate, the hooker was only too happy to have a bit of fun.

“Turnip… Turnip head,” said Sherry with a smile, sharing the Munster squad’s nickname for Fitzgerald, whose head they say is shaped like a turnip.

“He’s great around the group. He’s a character, I don’t know if he knows he’s as big a character if he is. He’s a great fella. He calls himself an Ardscoil legend every time I see him!”

Jokes aside, Sherry was keen to underline the quality Fitzgerald possesses, although it was the youngster’s 80-minute effort on the pitch during the 24-24 draw with Ulster that spoke loudest.

Fitzgerald has now made five Pro14 appearances for Munster in the second half of the season, with his cameo against the Kings in South Africa earlier this month also impressive.

“He’s a good fella and he’s very talented,” said Sherry. “I saw him play schools rugby and he really stood out. I think he’s starting to find his feet.

“He has great footwork, great speed, a great kicker. He just needs to put it together and play a couple of games and get a run. I think he was exceptional today.”

Fitzgerald certainly has pedigree. He was unlucky enough to lose Munster Schools Junior Cup and Senior finals with Ardscoil, but went on to play for Ireland at U19 and U20 levels, scoring five tries in eight starts on the wing for the U20s in 2015.

Stephen Fitzgerald with Clive Ross Fitzgerald carries against Ulster. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

His first two senior starts for Munster followed later that year, with a maiden Pro14 try coming against the Ospreys, before Fitzgerald had an injury-riddled 2016/17 campaign.

He headed to Bond University in Australia to get some game time last summer but a planned three-month stint lasted only three weeks after the Ardnacrusha man broke his hand.

He’s had to be patient since, but having been a key man for Munster ‘A’ and with his club side, Shannon, Fitzgerald is now looking sharp with opportunity under Johann van Graan.

“I enjoy Fitzy, I thought he did a really good job against the Kings and you know he has limited opportunities,” said van Graan after yesterday’s draw with Ulster.

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“We sat down during the week and he said he has been coming to Thomond Park for a long time but this was his first start and he was going to give me everything he has got.

“I think that definitely puts pressure on the other 15s in the squad after that performance. I thought he was fantastic in the air and his counter-attacking abilities, I thought he saw the right spaces.”

Simon Zebo is leaving Munster this summer but Andrew Conway wore the 15 shirt in the Champions Cup semi-final defeat to Racing last weekend, while the Irish-qualified fullback Mike Haley is joining from Sale Sharks ahead of next season.

There are options there for van Graan, but Fitzgerald is keen to take every chance he gets to put his hand up.

Stephen Fitzgerald during the warm up Fitzgerald is out to make Munster's 15 shirt his own. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Yeah, with Mike Haley coming and Andrew that can play at 15, for Fitzy it’s a position that’s wide open and guys want to play for this team,” said van Graan.

“I think that was evident tonight – it doesn’t matter what team or what personnel we put out. If Shane Daly had come on the field, it would have been our 51st member of the squad that would have played this year.

“We have a proud record here – we have only lost to Leinster on the 26th of December last year and therefore the guys that played this weekend were definitely not going to give up Thomond Park that easy.”

Captain Sherry was similarly pleased that many of the players not perceived as front-liners were able to make their point at Thomond Park yesterday ahead of next weekend’s Pro14 semi-final qualifier against Edinburgh back at the same venue.

“The back three put their hands up, all young guys,” said Sherry. “If you look back at that game, Dave O’Callaghan was just incredible. I think he’s one of the most underrated players in the country. Every time he plays, he’s just a brilliant player.

“Conor Oliver was chomping at the bit, Robin Copeland has been brilliant for the last while. This can only help us all, putting our hands up and putting pressure on more established players who have also played very well all year.

“It gives Johann and the coaches a bit of a headache and that’s all we can do.”

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Murray Kinsella

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