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We were so close, it's still hard to take: Fitzpatrick

Rugby

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 05/11/2016

Agonising end: Declan Fitzpatrick after the defeat to New Zealand three years ago which proved to be his final Ireland appearance after he was forced to retire last year following a series of concussions
Agonising end: Declan Fitzpatrick after the defeat to New Zealand three years ago which proved to be his final Ireland appearance after he was forced to retire last year following a series of concussions
Happy family: Declan Fitzpatrick on his wedding day with wife Gemma

Sometime around 10pm this evening, Ireland's rugby players hope to be sat deep inside the bowels of Chicago's Soldier Field reflecting on the history they've just made with a first ever win over the mighty All Blacks.

Twenty-eight Irish sides have tried and failed over the last 111 years and, with the exception of a draw in 1973 that finished all square when Barry McGann's conversion drifted wide, over, or inside the post depending on who you ask, nobody has ever came as close as the 23 men who took on the all-conquering World champions in 2013.

Seconds from victory, history was denied when Ryan Crotty, who will again be in the All Black midfield tonight, darted over the whitewash well after the 80th minute. When Aaron Cruden slotted a twice-taken conversion, Ireland didn't even have the consolation of a second draw against the sport's standard setters.

Thanks to a series of concussions that forced his retirement in 2015, it was the seventh and final time former Ulster prop Declan Fitzpatrick pulled on the green jersey.

His first two caps also came against New Zealand with an aggregate score of 102-10, and the 33-year-old admits that the loss that November day in Dublin is still hard to stomach.

"It still gets you in the heart thinking about that game," said the man who is now working as a quantity surveyor with Bruce Shaw LLP in Belfast.

"That team, we had a chance to have our names in history forever. I mean, people are still talking about that Munster team from 1978."

Fitzpatrick was a replacement for Mike Ross that day - Ireland had led 19-0 but the score was 22-17 when Joe Schmidt hauled his props ashore - and recalls the exuberance in the stands being matched on the bench.

"At the start, I was a supporter almost on the bench, just so excited about how well we were playing," he said.

"But then they come back and New Zealand went through maybe 20 phases in that final minute. You're just waiting and hoping that they make a mistake but it never comes.

"It was heartbreaking, almost like a shock. You go back and analyse it… it was our errors. It was within our grasp and we just let it slip. That's something that's come out of that game, there's nothing to be afraid of for Ireland against anyone."

While the 18 consecutive vanquished foes may beg to differ, Fitzpatrick remains optimistic that his old coach Joe Schmidt can mastermind a victory over his homeland and will once again find himself watching on as a fan this evening.

Born in Bromsgrove near Birmingham, it was Irish rugby, and indeed the GAA, that captured Ftizpatrick's imagination thanks to parents born in Galway and Mayo, and he arrived in Belfast through the Irish Exiles system.

Some 98 Ulster caps later and he became one of the first high-profile Irish casualties of the sport's concussion problem.

The likes of Nathan White and Kevin McLaughlin, another whose last cap came in the 2013 heartbreaker, have since followed suit and Fitzpatrick, who has always been open about the struggle, says he is still battling the effects of the injury.

"I'm still on the road to recovery. I still battle with migraines on a weekly basis and getting myself back to full health is an ongoing process day by day," he said.

"It's one of those injuries that only you know how you're feeling. I'd had the knocks over the years and at the time you treat them on a one at a time basis. It's difficult because there's always that pressure of how you're feeling. The tests are designed to help you through that and find out what's going on but a lot of it is subjective.

"Sometimes you feel the symptoms, sometimes you don't. It's very difficult."

Fitzpatrick, who married Newry-born Gemma during his playing days with the pair having a daughter, Alex, in 2013, admits that the mental strain of the injury takes hold far beyond the field of play.

"They always seemed to come at times when I would have had big opportunities with Ulster or with Ireland. Mentally that was really tough and it impacts away from the game too.

"It's a real tough injury. You have to give it the time it deserves and you can be so keen to get going that you knock yourself back a bit."

For the sake of those only starting to make their way in the game now, Fitzpatrick hopes that strides continue to combat brain injuries.

"There's a lot of players now who are coming out of school the same size I was after 10 years in the gym," he reflected. "That means the impacts are bigger. The way defence is coached now, there's an onus on chop tackling which is putting your head in a dangerous position.

"It gets recognised more and it's assessed more rigorously. There's fewer people now who are hiding their symptoms but there's no doubt in my mind that the impacts are bigger.

"There's a long way to go still. It's a complex issue and those strides have to continue. Is it something that, even now, people are taking seriously enough?

"Personally, I don't know."

Now playing more guitar than rugby, his retirement is something he was planning for before his sports career had even properly begun. Having been in the national academy at the same time as Rory Best, his potential as a strong scrummager and powerful force in the loose was recognised by Allen Clarke who arranged for him to come north.

When the opportunity to attend university arose, he was looking for a career, not something to pass the time.

Opting for Quantity Surveying at the University of Ulster, the decision paid dividends when it came time to prematurely hang up his boots.

"Whenever I was coming through the Academy, there was an opportunity to go to university," he explained. "The option that was most popular at the time was probably Sports Science but, coming from a sort of construction and engineering background in my family, I wanted something with a job at the end of it.

"Nobody knows how long a rugby career is going to last and I knew I wanted to be ready for a job when I was done."

The biggest challenge for someone also trying to make his mark in the professional game was time management but he found a study buddy in team-mate Tommy Bowe.

"I went for Quantity Surveying and I completed it full-time while being full-time with Ulster from my second year on. It was time consuming and quite tough but I managed. Tommy Bowe was doing something similar so we used to compare notes and go to see our advisor of study in the evenings. Final year was tough, especially when I was getting more involved with Ulster, but I got through.

"And thank God I did because when I finished rugby, a perfect opportunity just opened up."

Three years ago, a survey by the Professional Players Federation found that over a third of retired sportsmen didn't feel in control of their lives two years after giving up the game. Almost 15% admitted to feelings of depression.

For Fitzpatrick, planning ahead in those early days made the transition a smooth one.

He had secured work experience at John Lynch Associates in Belfast through a friend from university just before receiving the medical advice that ended his first career, a placement that would turn into a year's work.

"At 32, I was on the job hunt for the first time but I was lucky," he said. "The last couple of seasons, I had realised that I probably wasn't going to be the type of player to go full-term. The body was starting to let me down.

"Once you hit 30 everyone starts thinking of what they'll do after and I started looking for some work experience.

"IRUPA were great and Pamela Gilpin (the Player Development Manager) was good.

"I'd kept some friends from uni, and one was at John Lynch Associates. He had told me they needed a bit of help with a huge project they had on and when I had to retire they kept me on there for a year. After that, I went where I am now and it's something that I'm enjoying."

Looking forward, it seems, with no regrets.

Well, maybe just those final seconds against the All Blacks.

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