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Six Nations: Luke Fitzgerald ready to stake his claim after injury

By David Kelly

It has been a long time coming for Luke Fitzgerald but finally he will once more don an Ireland shirt. Even some of his team-mates can hardly recall the last time he was to the fore.

Conor Murray, as dutifully media-trained as the modern professional comes, is rocked in his chair as we remind him that Fitzgerald's last start for Ireland coincided with the scrum-half's Irish debut.

"Is it that long?" he asks, completely in shock at this revelation.

Murray has accumulated a career's worth of achievements since that 2011 World Cup warm-up in Bordeaux, including the appearance at a World Cup that Fitzgerald never had.

A Six Nations title and a Lions series win too but, pointedly, 34 international caps in a four-year span when a variety of job-threatening blows debarred Fitzgerald adding to his total of 27.

Fitzgerald has watched his career slowly drift by as the world turned without him. Never has the cliché been more appropriate.

"This feels like my first cap," says the Leinster winger as he earns his first start since that August 2013 date against France.

In the preceding three years, he had enjoyed 20 starts as a fulcrum of Declan Kidney's Grand Slam-winning team, not to mention his pre-eminence on the 2009 Lions tour.

For every aborted attempt to write a new chapter since, there has been the temptation to close the book altogether in a battle between the unbending will of his mind and the unforgiving frailty of his body.

"I was pretty close to retiring with major injuries," he tells us. "I couldn't really see a way back and I couldn't figure out what the problem was."

Time to hum a different tune and not a moment too soon.

"I'd be lying if I didn't think I'd get in sooner," he says after Joe Schmidt's axe fell on the luckless Simon Zebo, prompting the 27-year-old's return for the first time since a fleeting glimpse when Ireland agonisingly lost to the All Blacks in November 2013.

"But from a coach's view, you have to be empathetic even though it's unbelievably hard when you're so vested. Changing a winning team is always tricky and the boys have been doing a really good job."

It is ironic to think that a player who, 12 months ago, many clamoured to come into the side for his X-factor has now been supplanted by a player who many have also clamoured to come into the side for his X-factor.

Zebo rarely got a chance to work his attack from depth; the transformation into an aerial work-horse seemed to thieve him in other areas and Schmidt's reference to the player suffering a "niggle" seemed a tad stretched.

"We just felt that Luke had trained really well," Schmidt explains. "He had brought a real freshness and enthusiasm and we just felt that we tapered a little bit into that Wales game.

"We certainly didn't start the game with the same hunger and enthusiasm that we had against England. Last week we were a lot more passive in that first 20 minutes and it allowed Wales to exert themselves."

Fitzgerald has always adhered to the Schmidt work ethic; indeed he is arguably one of the best tacklers in the business.

But there will, in the context of last Saturday's myopia and the potential need to chase tries, be much more focus on Fitzgerald's dancing feet and blistering strength.

"I don't think I can do what Simon does," he demurs. "I can do what I do. I'm on the team to do that. Probably that lateral movement is the strongest part of my game.

"That footwork. Beating guys, drawing in defenders, creating opportunities for myself and for others. That's what I am in the team to do."

For now, cool hand Luke just wants to play; the World Cup may be in his sights but 80 minutes now is all that matters.

"I'm lucky to be in that team this weekend," he says. "It's any guy's dream to be involved in that starting XV. I say lucky, but I probably don't believe that. I've worked really hard to get back. I feel vindicated after all that hard work.

"It's difficult when you're a million miles away and you're close to retiring. So it's hard to say you're lucky to be in.

"I'm blessed to be in this position but I worked really hard and I'm delighted.

"The World Cup is everyone's long-term goal. Short-term goal? It's playing well this weekend.

"I'm in a great position now to really kick on.

"First things first, though. I have to put in a good performance this weekend for myself, the team and the squad to try and hang on to that jersey because the competition for those places is fierce."

Most people will include him in their prayers this weekend.

Belfast Telegraph

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