Belfast Telegraph

Cap still Fitz for Ulster after Declan's ups and downs

Declan's delight at overcoming his obstacles

By Michael Sadlier

There is much humour and candour as Declan Fitzpatrick chats easily about what he describes as his "roller-coaster career" and how he finally hopes that it will not be taking too many more plunges from here on in.

And there have been plenty of highs and lows over the years since the England-born but Ireland qualified tight-head prop made his Ulster debut way back in 2006.

Injury has frequently intervened to blight his career, as well as big name signings (BJ Botha and then John Afoa) getting the jump on him in the pecking order and indeed, more recently, rather worrying concussion issues have also kept him sidelined.

Then, to top it all, came last season's heart issue which saw Fitzpatrick hospitalised for tests after the game in Glasgow back in April.

That turned out to be due to the hit he took due to a caffeine gum intake prior to that game in Glasgow - the gums are a regular issue to players before games to deal with nerves and get them buzzing - after he had stayed clear of the stuff for some time due to the headaches he had been suffering as he made his way back to being fit to play again.

It proved to be another bleak time for the 31-year-old as, for a while, he pondered on whether he had any future left in the game while his health issue was fully investigated.

He, ultimately, got the all-clear but wasn't involved with Ireland's tour to Argentina - this time last year the seven times capped player was involved in the autumn internationals and came off the bench in that epic defeat to the All Blacks - before returning to play at the start of the season at the Scarlets.

All looked to be back on track again but, not for the first time, it didn't quite work out. He came on at Parc y Scarlets but took a bang to the head and was taken off and if that wasn't bad enough his start at Zebre was marred by a punch which connected with hooker Andrea Manici, resulting in a straight red card and accompanying suspension.

"I'd have loved just to have a steady career," Fitzpatrick says while remaining upbeat about the many lows he has experienced.

"Mentally it would have been easier on me but my real focus has been to try and get back for Ulster and play consistently and keep myself healthy."

That hardly seemed possible as he sat in a Glasgow hospital last April after his heart-rate was found to have raced to dangerous levels after having to come off the bench late in the first half.

This was truly the darkest time as Fitzpatrick had only made his way back to playing after having had to take time out over concussion issues and, now, his career was in peril again but from a totally unforeseen and non-injury related occurrence.

"Because I was suffering from migraines I had kept the caffeine totally out of my diet.

"We get caffeine gums (before games) and we all take them. Obviously I was a bit sensitive to it because I hadn't taken it. Then I got thrown on after half an hour because Ricky (Lutton) got injured."

The nerves from playing for the first time in a while meant that he just took the gums on board without realising the effect that they would have.

"I was feeling really tired and I didn't realise that at half-time it was because my heart was racing so fast, but I thought 'I'll take another caffeine' and took two more gums."

After playing on and feeling more and more weary he came off around the hour mark, "luckily enough the doctor who was there took me off," is how he describes it which resulted in him spending the weekend being closely monitored in Glasgow.

"It was a tough one mentally for a while after that but what can you do? These things happen and you've got to move on," he says, somehow able to laugh about it all now.

"My future in the game was really in doubt after having that heart incident," he adds.

"I had conversations with my wife at the time as to whether it was worth it and when I got all the reassurances I needed, medically, I had a real sense that I just have a bit of unfinished business."

"Maybe it's because I've had a roller-coaster career but I don't want to walk away from the game and say to myself 'what if this and what if that might have happened.'

After being given the all-clear by a specialist in Dublin, he has worked hard to get back to playing again and now that the headaches have gone, and the caffeine virtually cut out, Fitzpatrick had hoped that he was back on track.

"Then I took a knock against the Scarlets (in early September) which set me back a week, I got a blow in the face and because of my history with concussions they're very cautious which is a great thing.

"Obviously then the red card (against Zebre) then set me back massively.

"I shouldn't have done that," Fitzpatrick, who was provoked, admits with a knowing smile.

After two cameos off the bench in Ulster's last two European games, he is in line to do the same tonight at home to the Dragons (7.35pm) where he benches again while Wiehahn Herbst is on from the off. And, you never know, with Ireland in crisis over fit tight-head props, well, he might even yet get the call from Joe Schmidt.

"We've got to treat this like another European Cup game," he says, focusing on tonight's game.

"We've got to build that energy for it and it's easy to come down off that high and say 'yeah, it's just another league game and it's the Dragons' but we know they'll be reckoning they might have a chance here.

"If you look at this game, it's also a great opportunity for us as well to really put down a marker for the rest of the season and put a line under it (Europe) and move on."

He added: "I have done it at the highest level, so the onus is now on me to show what I can do."

He is hoping that, finally, he may be able to pack up his troubles and just play.


Ulster v Newport Gwent Dragons: The inside track


Roger Wilson v Andy Powell

With plenty of inexperience and youngsters on the pitch, both sides will look to their number 8s as stabilising forces. With Rory Best on Ireland duty, Roger Wilson will once again captain the home province from the base of the scrum and his leadership of what is an under strength back-row will be important.

With Sean Reidy, making his competitive debut, and Clive Ross, who has just one previous start, either side of him, the 34-year-old former Northampton Saint will be relied upon both in terms of ball carrying and work at the breakdown.

Andy Powell, capped 23 times by Wales and selected for the 2009 British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa, returned to Newport this season after a much travelled career that has taken in the Pro12, the English Premiership, a brief spell in France and rugby league. Remembered for the golf buggy incident back in 2010, Powell is much more than just a big character and, while no longer in his pomp, will still pose a threat with his hard carrying.

Stuart Olding v Jason Tovey

Last week proved eventful for Ulster's Stuart Olding after he received a kick to the head in an incident that led to Toulon prop Romain Taofifenua receiving a three week ban. The blow, that led to his substitution in the 47th minute, did not stop the 21-year-old joining up with the Ireland squad that assembled at Carton House this week but, after undergoing the return to play protocols, he has been released to feature for Ulster tonight.

After playing at inside centre and out-half this year, Olding is named at fullback and, with the Dragons liable to kick the ball deep often, his ability to counter attack from inside his own half could come to the fore this evening.

Ulster fans are already well aware of the attacking threat posed by Jason Tovey after he scored a hat-trick against the province back in 2009. That performance sealed a 26-16 win at Rodney Parade and the home side will need to be more wary of the former Wales under-20 international this time around.

Rob Herring v Thomas Rhys Thomas

Given the minutes that Rory Best usually gets through, the role of his understudy can often seem like a thankless task but Rob Herring gets his chance tonight thanks to the Ulster captain's involvement with Ireland.

Herring - himself capped by Ireland on last summer's tour to Argentina - has made just two previous starts this campaign, while receiving limited time off the bench, and has admitted that his lack of action can sometimes be difficult. Given the chance of an extended run in the starting XV, the South African native will be determined to make the most of it and, with a much changed team, his work in the set-piece will be important.

Donning the number two jersey for the Dragons is Thomas Rhys Thomas who returns to the side after missing last week's defeat to Newcastle. The experienced 32-year-old was capped 27 times by Wales between 2005 and 2008 and is in his second season back in the Pro12 after one year spent in the Premiership with Wasps.


The main threats

The Gwent region may appear to be the poor relation in Wales of late, highlighted by the fact that most seem to believe that home-grown star Dan Lydiate will opt for the Ospreys when he returns to Wales from Racing Metro after the autumn internationals, but their recent win over Stade Francais in Paris shows that the potential is there.

Head coach Kingsley Jones believes that when his side play without inhibitions they can be a dangerous unit and there will be little pressure on them at the Kingspan Stadium where few will expect them to get a result. A threadbare squad, with an injury crisis at centre to rival Ulster's second row issues, still contains some dangerous young players while, winger Aled Brew, capped nine times by Wales and in his third spell with the Dragons, can be a threat with the ball in hand.

It shouldn't be enough to take anything from tonight's contest however, and Ulster will expect to ensure that the Dragons lose for the sixth time in the Pro12 this season.


The tactics

With a host of injuries to contend with, and unable to call on their international stars, expect to see both sides play with a simplified gameplan.

While Ulster still have the likes of Darren Cave, Stuart Olding, Stuart McCloskey and Louis Ludik among the backline, two of them are playing in different roles so expansive set moves may be at a minimum. Even with Andrew Warwick on the bench and Rory Best away with Ireland, there is a familiar look to Ulster's tight five and if they can eke out opportunities off the tee for Paddy Jackson, they will have confidence in their out-half to keep the scoreboard ticking over.

That is not a luxury afforded to the Dragons who have had their season blighted by a struggling scrum and kicking woes. Against Newcastle they could not convert two of their three tries and missed two penalties.

If they continue to kick the ball away with the frequency they have done, Ulster should punish them on the counter.


The verdict

This really is a must-win for Ulster as falling to a third successive defeat in all competitions is simply unpalatable. While Ulster would most likely have rotated elements of their team anyway, regardless of Ireland's call, they still have a more than decent line-up and the lowly Dragons are reeling with injuries. This should be a home win.

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