Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Heineken Cup: Waiting over for Fitzpatrick

When an unexpected opportunity presents itself, well, there’s only really only one way to react and that’s to grab it with both hands.

John Afoa’s ban is the unforeseen chance that came Declan Fitzpatrick’s way and now the 28-year-old prop — who in a twist of fate was on the losing side to Afoa’s New Zealand side when Ireland made the U21 World Cup final back in 2004 — finds himself playing only his second game since November in what just happens to be Saturday’s Heineken Cup semi-final.

No pressure then? The Irish-qualified player, who originally hails from the West Midlands, laughs at how it has all panned out, particularly the fact that he has spent most of the last four months recovering from a serious neck injury which he suffered while playing against Glasgow last November.

“Good things come to those who wait,” he cheerily states nearly six seasons after making his Ulster debut.

“One guy’s loss is another guy’s gain and I’ve just been fortunate that I’m fit just at the right time.

“It’s been a long journey, though,” he adds in the wake of his extended period of rehabilitation.

“It was probably the worst injury I’ve had. I had headaches and a lot of pain in my neck but it’s all cleared up now.

“Against Glasgow I just got my head caught in a scrum. It was a really innocuous injury and I just got whiplash.

“Then it didn’t really come on for two weeks and then I was training with it which made it a little bit worse,” Fitzpatrick, who made his 61st appearance for Ulster in last week’s PRO12 League defeat to Leinster, recalls.

He did virtually an hour against Cian Healy in last Friday’s game and came through the experience well which was a major bonus for Fitzpatrick and Brian McLaughlin as he prepares his side to take on Edinburgh on Saturday evening.

Things haven’t panned out smoothly for him and Fitzpatrick has had to deal with injuries as well as being kept away from starting line-ups by the presence of World Cup winning tight-head props BJ Botha and now Afoa.

With the dearth of Irish tight-head props being of particular concern in the game here, this certainly isn’t a bad time to be displaying his wares again though, clearly, Afoa – unless injured – is likely to return should Ulster make next month’s final.

“I’ve had a difficult career in that I’ve had a lot of highs and then certain lows and maybe haven’t pushed on as much as I would have liked,” Fitzpatrick says in a moment of reflection.

“I’ve had a lot of injuries so I haven’t moved on. If I can just keep myself fit and playing well, who knows, things might happen in the future,” the Ireland A player says while also reminding us that he has been involved in some Six Nations training squads.

You sense his frustration but, by his reckoning, there’s nothing else for it but wait for opportunity to knock. And with the vastly experienced Allan Jacobsen likely to be his opposite number on Saturday this will be a huge test of not only his fitness but also of his abilities as a strong scrummager.

“I’ve played against him a couple of times he’s obviously a very crafty guy,” is all Fitzpatrick will say of what is bound to be an interesting contest.

As for the build-up to the gigantic clash with Edinburgh, Fitzpatrick talks of simply remaining focused on the job at hand.

“There’s going to be a lot more adrenalin and anxiety floating around but you’ve just got to treat it as another game. I know that’s quite strange for people outside but you (as a player) have just got to be professional.”

And as for himself, Fitzpatrick is unequivocal in what he brings to the side.

“Any time I’ve had opportunities I’ve proved it. I’m part of the squad and I’ve still got plenty of years left in me yet.

“Hopefully I can now kick on,” he adds.

Now, it’s time to take his opportunity.

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